The Grammarphobia Blog

From ‘anti-vac’ to ‘anti-vaxxer’

Q: Who makes up terms such as “anti-vaxxer”?

A: We’re all responsible. English is a flexible language, and English speakers like to flex their lexical muscles by coining new terms. For more than two centuries, we’ve been coining various terms for someone opposed to vaccinations.

The first one, “anti-vaccinator,” appeared in the early 19th century and referred to critics of smallpox vaccinations. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book review in an 1806 issue of the Philosophical Magazine, a British scientific journal:

“This popular work is a very fair exposure of the unprincipled means to which the anti-vaccinators have resorted to turn the prejudices of the ignorant into a source of dishonest emolument to themselves.”

The term “anti-vaccinationist” emerged later in the 19th century. The oldest example we’ve found is from an 1876 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“This gentleman confessed himself an anti-vaccinationist, but as the law required vaccination, he submitted to the law in his own family, and would have others also submit to it.”

In the late 19th century, people began using the short versions “anti-vac” and ”anti-vacc” as adjectives or nouns for opponents of vaccination.

Here’s an “anti-vac” example from a July 4, 1877, letter in the journal of the National Anti-Compulsory-Vaccination League, founded in London in 1867:

“In so far as the Anti-vaccination movement has yet become national, our League is entitled to be considered national, all known Anti-vac’s having been invited to the Conference which formed it, and the conference having been attended by delegates from all parts of the country.”

And this “anti-vacc” example is from a book review in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature (1895), by the British publisher, editor, and bibliographer William Swan Sonnenschein: “Divested of its anti-vacc. bias, the book is full of valuable material.”

As far as we can tell, the informal shortenings “anti-vaccer,” “anti-vax,” and “anti-vaxxer” emerged only in the last 10 years in reference to opponents of influenza, MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), and other vaccines.

Here’s an “anti-vaxxer” example from a headline on a letter to the editor in the March 9, 2009, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “ ‘ANTI-VAXXERS’ ARE PUTTING MANY AT RISK.”

The letter describes Andrew Wakefield, a discredited British medical researcher, as “the ‘father’ of the anti-vaxxer movement.” Wakefield was found to have falsified a 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

And here’s an “anti-vaccer” example from an April 24, 2009, comment on the Discover Magazine blog: “I find it horrible to think that it will take a major epidemic & children dying of easily preventable diseases to make people wake up and take notice what these anti-vaccer/pro-disease people are doing.”

In an Oct. 29, 2009, broadcast, the CNN journalist Randi Kaye used both “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” in describing comments by bloggers opposed to influenza vaccinations:

“Some anti-vaxxers, as they’re called, linked the swine flu vaccine today to the 1976 swine flu vaccine which left some paralyzed. Now anti-vax bloggers suggest the vaccine isn’t safe for children and pregnant women because of a preservative in the vaccine called thimerosal.”

Kaye noted that the Centers for Disease Control says thimerosal “is safe and all that preservative does actually has caused a little redness and maybe some swelling at the injection spot.”

Of the various shortenings, the only ones that have made it into standard dictionaries are “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax,” the two most popular spellings in our searches of digital databases.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary includes only the noun “anti-vaxxer,” which it defines as “a person who opposes vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.” It lists the term without comment—that is, as standard English.

Oxford Dictionaries Online includes the noun “anti-vaxxer” as well as the adjective “anti-vax,” and labels the two terms “informal.”

It defines the noun as “a person who is opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who does not wish to vaccinate their child,” and gives this example: “experts say several diseases that are avoidable are making a comeback due to anti-vaxxers who refuse to vaccinate their kids.”

And it defines the adjective as meaning “opposed to vaccination,” giving this example: “One doctor isn’t afraid to point a finger right at the anti-vax movement.”

Why are the spellings “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax” more popular than “anti-vaccer” and “anti-vac”? Our guess is that English speakers prefer “xx” and “x” because it’s natural to pronounce them like the “cc” of “vaccine,” while “cc” and “c” could be pronounced like the “c” of “vacuum.”

Finally, the usual term now for someone who vaccinates is “vaccinator,” as in this Oxford example: Each round requires vaccinators to get the polio drops into the mouths of 50 million children.”

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