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Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Shots and jabs


The news is all about the new COVID-19 vaccines. Thank God (and armies of scientists) for them.

But have you noticed that while we in North America will be lining up for our "shots", people in Britain go for "jabs"?

I have to say that "jab" has always had rather violent connotations for me, as if the medical professional were to come hurtling at me and aggressively poke my arm with the hypodermic (possibly even with a blood-curdling yell). I expect for the British these violent connotations have faded away, just as they have for us with "shot".  I doubt that any North American heading into the flu shot clinic has visions of their pharmacist whipping out a gun and unloading vaccine-laden bullets into their arm.

Both of these words seem to have started their injection-related careers in American drug users' slang in the early 20th century. By the 1930s "shot" had started on its path to respectability, and by the 60s was a quite standard term for injections.

By the 1980s "jab" had become the standard term in Britain. I have no idea why British English opted for this while other varieties preferred "shot," but such are the ways of language.

"Shot" is a very old word, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. "Jab" is a much more recent word, dating from the 1820s, but it is derived from an older Scottish word "job", used of a bird poking with its beak, possibly in imitation of the sound made by the bird.

For the story behind "vaccine", please click here:


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  1. I guess I associate "jab" more with "dab," which doesn't sound as bad to me as getting "shot." (I'm 70-ish, central Texas forever...)

  2. My Scottish husband and his family say 'jag' instead. I don't know if it is a Scottish thing or a family thing!

    1. The OED does indeed have this as a Scottish sense of "jag": 7. Scottish. A prick with anything sharp.
      1818 W. Scott Heart of Mid-Lothian viii, in Tales of my Landlord 2nd Ser. I. 225 Affliction may gi'e him a jagg, and let the wind out o' him.
      1900 N.E.D. at Jag Mod. Sc. A tailor gave an elephant a jag with his needle. His bare legs were a' jags wi' rinnin' through the whuns.

    2. From which we have,"Jagged", in all it's current commonness.

  3. Does that use of "shot" deriving from drug slang also explain its use as a small measure of liquor (and now for injections into fancy coffee)? I quite enjoy drinking a shot from time-to-time, but I prefer not to get shot, unless it is taking a vaccine shot.

    1. that sense of "shot" seems to date back to the 1600s but became much more common in the 20th century.

  4. I recently discovered a British online radio station. I find so funny hearing the newsreaders using the word "jab" during their very serious broadcasts.

  5. "Jab" seems to be gaining a significant currency in Canada though. I'm hearing a lot of it on CBC Radio, CTV News, and by friends.

    1. I suspect that for now this is a result of journalists lifting text off British newswires and not bothering to "translate", as it is after all understandable. But it will be interesting to see if things evolve.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.