“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:

18 thoughts on ““Jab”

    1. It just depends on what you are used to hearing.

      I’m from California, & when I visited North Carolina (so going from the West Coast to the East Coast of the US), I learned that they often use the word “mash” where we would use “push” or “press”, such as “Mash the green button.” I thought “mash” sounded more forceful — like you might break it. (It also made me think of mashing potatoes.) But they thought “push” sounded more forceful.

  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!

    1. Yes, You are right because in Scotland “o’s” become “a’s” for example; to = dae, do = dae, so = sae, Job = Jab. We used to say, Jab all the time growing up in Scotland, Jab is a needle, Jab can be your Job and Jag is a prick of the finger.

  5. I’ve heard “jab” used in reference to getting an injection in the past (as another commenter mentioned “a jab in the arm), but certainly not frequently until recently with the pandemic (and I have chronic medical conditions, so I’ve had to deal with needles a lot more than the average person). “Jab” was more of a joking term for getting a shot, and even then it referred more to the action rather than the medication or vaccine.

    Usually, it was “shot” as in, “I had to get a shot.” or “Make sure your shots are up to date.” “Injection” is more formal (and obviously longer), so even doctors usually said “shot”.

    During the process, medical professionals use the word “stick” a lot, as in, “Sorry I had to stick you more than once.” or “She’s dehydrated, so it’s hard to get a good stick.” This only refers to the action of inserting a needle, not the reason they need to insert it. It may also be exclusive to inserting a needle in a vein, and not apply to injecting into the muscle. Although, they might say, “It will just be a quick stick.” while they prep for the injection, but I feel like that refers more to the feeling the patient experiences.

    “Prick” could be another option, but it describes the feeling or action more than the actual injection, e.g. “It’ll just be a quick prick.” or “When they pricked me with the needle, I had to take a few deep breaths.” I haven’t heard it used much. “Prick” kind of down-plays the level of severity or pain experienced.

    Other terms also have nuances that give slightly different meanings.

    “Poke” and “stick” can refer to anytime a needle is being used — whether fluids are being put in or taken out, but “shot” is only for injections, not blood draws.

  6. Born in the USA at the turn of the 20th century, despite Britain already having used the term for at least a hundred years prior?

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