Vacuna is Spain’s word of the year for 2021... | Reuters


I found myself thinking about Spiro Agnew, about whom I hadn’t thought for decades. Why would I, or you, for that matter? It’s almost fifty years since he resigned as vice-president. But it wasn’t the corruption allegations that brought him to mind. It was what he once said about words. He tried to learn a new one every day.

Spiro wasn’t a man lost for words, his daily dictionary consultations a means - seemingly - of adding ammunition to his put-downs of anti-war protesters and anyone with even modestly liberal inclinations. “Nattering nabobs of negativism,” Spiro once observed, presumably having also familiarised himself with “alliteration”.

This quest for new words was oddly admirable, a recognition that one cannot be familiar with every single word in one’s own language, or that one might have once encountered a word but had forgotten that it existed. Which happened the other day, when glancing at the back cover critical praise for a novel - Jonathan Raban’s ‘Foreign Land’ - that only now, and after some 35 years in my possession, have I got round to reading. The Times Literary Supplement said: “... so full of good stuff as to make other novels look undernourished and etiolated”. Etiolated? When had I ever used etiolated? Did Spiro?

With a foreign language, the Agnew approach is common practice. Learn a new word a day. Which is fine, until you realise you can’t remember it, assuming you had ever known it in the first place. Which has also happened. Like early last year. I was about to embark on a sentence in German, but then ... . What the hell was the German for vaccination or indeed vaccine?

I bluffed with “Vakzine”, which is correct but isn’t the word normally used - it’s “Impfstoff,“ in case you’re interested - and found myself in a Covid language parallel universe, German everyday use having assigned “Corona” to everything of a Covid nature. Which merely served to reinforce a childhood memory that was aroused at the very outset of the crisis. They had named a virus after a brand of soft drinks.

The Corona man would come once a week. Had it been down to me, which it certainly wasn’t, the weekly selection would have consisted of nothing other than Corona cola-ade. Sibling rivalry demanded Corona limeade and cherryade as well. Or instead. Perhaps I should have been grateful. I was never hooked on fizzy drinks, as I couldn’t stand either of them.

While the Germans have spent the past twelve months littering every sentence with “Corona-Impfstoff” and “Corona-Impfung” and thus recalling long-ago days of the Corona truck pulling up outside the house with its bottles of sugary vaccines, the Spanish, who from the start of the crisis might have been nonplussed by a virus associated with the Crown, have not missed a single day without all of them uttering “vacuna” (vaccine) at least once. Or so it would seem.

The FundéuRAE was established in 2005. The Royal Spanish Academy, arbiters of standardised and correct Spanish, teamed up with the EFE press agency in establishing a body to respond to issues raised by “emerging” Spanish. In pursuit of the unity and purity of the Spanish language, emerging words required a form of jury, especially where these words were imports.

Vacuna was hardly an emerging word last year or indeed the year before, but for the foundation it was a very important word in 2021, so important that the foundation has named it word of the year. It was a word on everyone’s lips. It was a word repeated over and over in the media. It was a word spoken by politicians. It was a word in government literature and on government websites. Vacuna was so everyday and ubiquitous that it provided the motive for a form of personal identification - the Covid passport.

In addition, according to the foundation, there was a linguistic interest in this word, the origin of which - thanks to the work of Edward Jenner in tackling smallpox - is from the Latin for cow or associated with a cow. In Spanish, if you like, the stem of the word is “vaca”, cow.

And so, vacuna is Spain’s word of the year for 2021, the foundation also having given an honourable mention to “variante” and, perhaps less honourably, to “negacionista” - denier. The one-time soft drinks brand had thus spawned a vital lexicon for daily use, backed up by, for example, “desabastecimiento” (shortage) and “cámper” (camper van).

It wasn’t a case of having to learn a word, as the word was long-established and in common usage. It was a case of how language and everyday speech are ruled by events. And just as these events come to dominate, so they cease to and take this speech with them. Etiolated means loss of vigour or substance. Time will tell.