“Jab”

It isn’t often that NOOBs is timely and up-to-the-minute. But this post, suggested by Gigi Simeone, is about a word that’s as much in the news as a word can be. The rollout of Coronavirus vaccines over the past week in both the U.K. and the U.S. highlights the different common word used in each for an injection. Here it’s “shot”; there it’s “jab.”

Interestingly, “jab” originated in American underworld slang around the turn of the twentieth century, specifically meaning an injection of narcotics. But a more general sense had migrated over to Britain by 1959, when the OED cites this quote from Punch: “Receiving the hypodermic jab intended for the bullock.” (One can only imagine the context.) More recently there’s this 1973 quote from The Times: “The visitor must..take precautions and submit to a variety of jabs.”

I don’t recall ever encountering “jab”=”shot” in America. I would normally look it up in Google Ngram Viewer or another corpus, but at the moment don’t have the bandwidth to figure out how to eliminate all the other various meanings for both words. (In the U.S., for example, “jab” is frequently used as a boxing term and as both a noun and verb referring to a humorous insult. And don’t even get me started on “shot.”) Perhaps Lynne Murphy or another estimable scholar is up to the task.

Anyway, Gigi pointed out that she’s lately been hearing the hypodermic “shot” in the U.S. recently, and my investigation bears her out. I would imagine that a big reason is elegant variation — there’s only so many times a journalist can write “shot” or “injection” before yearning for a synonym. As far back as September, American virologist Jesse Erasmus said on NPR, “It would be nice if you could just have an RNA that can be manufactured. And then someone could just take a jab in the muscle, and then your muscle could produce that antibody, and you could reach protective levels.” (I am so not sure about this, but isn’t this more or less what happened?)

The New York Times has recently adopted the word, referring on December 2 to someone participating in a vaccine trial and getting “a jab in the arm.” But the acceptance was still a little shaky a week later, when the paper put the word in quotation marks in a headline:

Just yesterday, the Times used it in another headline, sans inverted commas — which would have ruined the play on words:

14 thoughts on ““Jab”

  1. No less august an organisation than the UK’s National Health Service sent me a text which begins:
    “Dear Mr Tipper,
    Your flu jab appointment has been booked for Saturday 19th December…”
    That struck me as very familiar and slang. Although ‘flu jab’, ‘tetanus jab’ and ‘holiday jabs’ are commonly used by the general public I had expected ‘injection’ from an institution. Perhaps this is an indication that ‘jab’ is moving from being slang to being an official word, in the UK, at least.

    1. I recall a recent decision by the NHS to replace medical jargon with well-understood terms when dealing with the public. Probably a good thing for reasons of clarity.

  2. I’m pretty sure I grew up hearing “jab in the arm” in the 50s or 60s in central Texas, but I don’t know that I ever connected it with an injection. I agree with Anthony, though: “jab” sounds less painful to me than “shot.”

  3. I think jab sounds more painful simply because I am not used to it. Shot has been standard since time immemorial, and I hardly even think of it as being the same word as a shot from a gun.

    1. ‘Jab’ is a slang word but is used by the BBC to the virtual exclusion of ‘vaccination’, still les
      s ‘inoculation’.

  4. There’s a bit of a problem here. You say that ‘jab’ originates in American slang. While the medical reference might, the word itself as a verb has been in use longer – in Britain, as a Scottish variant of ‘job’ (from Middle English ‘jobben’, to thrust, to jab, to peck, ca 1500). Hence, the noun ‘jab’ also meant a thrust or a poke. So I’m afraid that the migration is the other way around. As to it sounding more violent… well, that’s all up to a person’s personal connotations and opinion, and there are as many of those as there are bottoms, as we well know. Personally, ‘shot’ has never been a word I would want to connect to an injection, because it paints the picture of a needle being literally fired at you!

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