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Word Misappropriation: ANTI-VAXXER
A verbal series. Part 6.
Not too long ago, the infamous Merriam Webster dictionary—perhaps as part of its mission to be more “inclusive”—modified its definition of the term: “anti-vaxxer” to present it not merely as a way to describe someone who opposes using vaccines altogether, but to also encompass anyone who opposes mandatory vaccinations. Even if they happen to believe that vaccinations are useful and themselves have willingly received them in the past. That is not an insignificant distinction, nor is it a trivial change.
Definition of anti-vaxxer: a person who opposes the use of vaccines or regulations mandating vaccination.
According to Politifact, Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of Merriam-Webster.com, had told them that the entry was first added to the online dictionary in February 2018 and hasn’t been revised or changed since. But even so, in practice, this particular definition has begun to be applied rather liberally more recently than that.
Why does this matter? As we’re all certainly aware by now, the term “anti-vaxxer” has fairly negative connotations attached to it. It calls to mind conspiracy theorists or wellness gurus who have been on a juice cleanse for a bit too long. It categorizes individuals as those who have “lost the plot”—and perhaps are best ignored, or dismissed.
Historically, vaccines have ensured that certain dangerous and deadly diseases have been pretty much eradicated. They also kept us from getting extremely sick by teaching our immune system how to create antibodies that protect us from diseases. All in all, vaccines have been a pretty tremendous contribution to our species’ survival toolkit.
Various countries have different rules as far as vaccines go. Some make them mandatory if you want to go to school, some do not. And even with mandatory vaccinations, there are distinctions between which vaccinations are and which aren’t. (For example, in many countries, measle vaccines may be required, but flu shots are not).
In this space, I have no intention of debating whether one should or should not take a particular vaccine. I am not someone who comes from a scientific or medical background—let alone an immunology one. My opinion carries no weight—and should not. However, when it comes to words: I do have opinions. And, as readers are well aware, many of them.
The idea that someone who does not believe that individuals should take vaccines is the same as someone who questions vaccines mandates is a conflation of two rather different things under the guise of them being one and the same. It’s yet another instance of word misappropriation.
It also erases the presence of any nuance. While some believe that any instance of the government telling someone what they have to put in their bodies is a full on authoritarian violation, many actually do think that in certain instances where public safety is in serious question, it may unfortunately be necessary. There is, however, a disagreement amongst many as to whether that time is now, or not.
But by putting everyone into the same category, lumping together individuals who hold very different thoughts and views, it allows any criticism or questioning to be immediately dismissed as “anti-vaxxer” rhetoric. It doesn’t even matter if the person questioning the narrative happens to be fully vaccinated and believes that a particular vaccine is indeed effective and mostly safe. Just by questioning restrictive mandates, or how they are implemented, and whether there may be some alternatives that can be explored, that person is immediately put in the exact same category as a “conspiracy theory anti-vaxxer.”
Is this accidental or by design? Or perhaps, a little bit of both?
Regardless, the effect is that it vilifies the so-called “anti-vaxxer” by weaponizing the term against them—in an attempt to shut down certain discourse.