Four major medical language changes that happened in 2021

We’re at the start of a new year…but are unfortunately still facing the same big problem. The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, with the omicron variant an uninvited guest at many end-of-year holiday celebrations.

And yet, what I just wrote shows that there has been at least one major change as far as the pandemic goes. This time last year, COVID-19 variants were usually named based on the place where they had first been reported (i.e. the UK variant).

This led to a number of serious issues, including variant names being used to place blame or incite division and hate (which, tragically, sometimes manifested in hate crimes), certain politicians and journalists using variant names to contribute to this hatred, and (understandably), countries being hesitant to report occurrences of new variants.

Last May, the World Health Organization made a radical change: In order to avoid these issues, from then, on, COVID-19 variants would officially be named using letters of the Greek alphabet. When I covered this news on our blog, I was skeptical that it would work. Fortunately, this system has not only been functioning well on an official level, but also with the public - as those “My fall plans/the delta variant” memes and omicron jokes attest.

This is just one of the medical language changes that happened in 2021 and that seems to be with us for the long haul.

Another is the increased use - and encouragement to use - terms that affirm patients’ identity as people, not as their condition.

We’ve seen this frequently in areas like addiction, where new preferred terms include “person with substance abuse disorder” instead of “addict” and “substance abuse disorder” instead of “addiction”.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse is one of many resources that has a list of these preferred terms, which are meant to remind us that a condition does not define a person. Other examples on their list include “person in recovery” instead of “former addict” and “use” instead of “abuse” of drugs or alcohol.

This new way of talking about conditions can be seen in other areas of medicine as well. For instance, instead of describing someone as “a diabetic”, the preferred term would be “a person with diabetes”.

Although it may take time for these new terms to become commonly used by the general public, they point to a larger trend that we’ve seen over the past years: a thirst for equality, representation, and better understanding of others.

On the other hand, one term that has quickly been adopted by just about everyone, is “vax”, which the Oxford English Dictionary named its word of 2021.

The term isn’t new to 2021, but by September, it was being used a staggering 72% more often than it had since its creation. This Guardian article is a helpful reminder of just how common the term is today, from “anti-vaxxers” (the term’s variants, with differing numbers of x’s, still count), to newer terminology like “double-vaxxed”, or even proper names like that of dating app vax 4 vax.

Whether you use it or prefer the longer, good old-fashioned “vaccine”, you’ve certainly come across “vax” and its derivations many times in the past year, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

The last language change on our list is far more controversial. In 2021, the CDC, followed by sources like textbook and dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, changed the definitions of “vaccination” and “vaccine”.

As the Miami Herald reported in September:

Before the change, the definition for “vaccination” read, “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.” Now, the word “immunity” has been switched to “protection.”

As for “vaccine”:

The CDC’s definition changed from “a product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease” to the current “a preparation that is used to stimulate the body’s immune response against diseases.”

Some have said that these definitions were changed to defend the fact that COVID-19 vaccines don’t guarantee immunity against the disease. But a CDC spokesperson countered with claims that that the changes are minor and are about transparency, since no vaccines are 100% effective.

Whether this is the whole truth, a part of the truth, or just an excuse has been a subject of debate, ever since. Controversy around COVID-19 vaccines will likely continue, as debates rage around the world regarding issues like vaccine requirements and, recently, what it really means to be “fully vaccinated,” now that boosters are being recommended (or even required, depending on where you live).

When I wrote about how 2020 had changed our language around this time last year, the vocabulary there reflected major shifts in our world. Most of 2021’s major changes, at least in a medical sense, seem to be about adapting to our current circumstances.

Still, at least one trend - that of rethinking of how we talk about COVID-19 variants and chronic conditions - shows a light of hope and humanity. I hope that this will shine brightly through 2022, no matter what else happens in the medical world and beyond.


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