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TOPIC: Word on the Street / Vaccine / Weekend Wall Street Journal

Word on the Street / Vaccine / Weekend Wall Street Journal 2 days 2 hours ago #387898

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‘Vaccine’: Safety From Viruses, Courtesy of the Cows (Maybe)

An 18th-century doctor’s success in inoculating against smallpox gets credit for the term, but did his samples come from cows or horses?



By Ben Zimmer / WALL STREET JOURNAL

May 21, 2020


After weeks of somber news about the coronavirus pandemic, the appearance of a particular word in headlines was enough to brighten spirits: “vaccine.”

On Monday, the biotech company Moderna reported some promising results in initial tests for an experimental coronavirus vaccine, and that wisp of good news was enough to help propel the stock market out of the doldrums, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average surging 900 points. The optimism could prove to be premature, as even in the best of circumstances a successful vaccine is still many months away from coming to market. And yet the simple power of the word “vaccine” serves as a beacon of hope in the midst of the global health crisis.

The terms “vaccine” and “vaccination,” in fact, come from humble beginnings, originating with cows and the dairymaids who milked them.

At the end of the 18th century, the English physician Edward Jenner was researching how to cure the deadly disease smallpox, and he looked into reports that milkmaids were immune if they had already contracted a less virulent but related disease, cowpox. The story goes that in 1796, Jenner inoculated a young boy with the cowpox virus, using matter taken from the lesions of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelms. After the boy recovered, he was inoculated with smallpox. When no disease developed, Jenner concluded that the cowpox inoculation had protected him.

While cows got the credit, their role in disease prevention eventually began to fade from common memory.
Jenner wrote up his findings in a booklet titled “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae.” “Variolae vaccinae” was the term he used for cowpox, with the second term derived from the Latin word “vacca,” meaning “cow.” (In Latin, the word “bos,” the root of “bovine,” is a more general word for cattle, while “vacca” refers just to female bovines as found on dairy farms.) Rendered into English, Jenner’s terminology led to cowpox being called “the vaccine disease,” and the treatment for smallpox was termed “vaccine inoculation,” or “vaccination” for short.


Recent research has complicated this story, however. A 2017 report in The New England Journal of Medicine posited that, based on analyzing historical smallpox vaccine samples, Jenner’s original vaccine derived from horsepox rather than cowpox. In Jenner’s own journals, he acknowledged he had used matter from both cows and horses in his experiments. As Kai Kupferschmidt wrote in Science magazine, if we have horses rather than cows to thank for the first vaccine, perhaps we should call it “equusine” instead.



While cows got the credit, their role in disease prevention eventually began to fade from common memory as “vaccine” and “vaccination” were applied more broadly. That process started in the 1880s, when Louis Pasteur explored using Jenner’s inoculation technique as a way to immunize people and animals against other diseases. Since then, “vaccination” has been used for any treatment of a contagious disease using an agent that resembles the microorganism that caused the disease.

More recent developments have taken the term in unexpected directions. Around 2000, chiefly in online forums, those skeptical of (or flatly opposed to) the routine use of vaccinations started to be called “anti-vax,” facing off against the “pro-vax” camp. Later, members of the anti-vaccination contingent were dubbed “anti-vaxers,” which morphed into the more eye-catching “anti-vaxxers.” The double “x” spelling may have been influenced by “doxxing,” a term for publicly exposing someone by posting documents. That in turn may have been inspired by playful hacker misspellings known as “Leetspeak”—such as spelling “hacker” as “haxxor.”


As scientists scramble to develop a coronavirus vaccine, the next chapter in the term’s history has yet to be written. As a handy shorthand for headline writers in the coming months, may I suggest “coronavax”?

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