Politics & Policy

Merriam-Webster Defines 79 Percent of Americans as ‘Anti-Vaxxers’

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in New York, May 12, 2021. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Are you now or have you ever been an anti-vaxxer?

Chances are high that the answer is yes if you’re using Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term: “a person who opposes vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.” (Emphasis added).

A Morning Consult poll from this past December indicated that only 21 percent of Americans would support making the coronavirus vaccines mandatory for adults, rendering a shocking 79 percent of the public “anti-vaxxers.”

Observers took notice of the inclusive Merriam-Webster definition on Wednesday, two days after New York governor Andrew Cuomo declared that State University of New York (SUNY) campuses would be requiring vaccination for all students enjoying in-person instruction. “I encourage all private colleges & universities to require vaccinations as well” Cuomo added.

Some private institutions, such as Cornell University, have already announced that they would be mandating vaccination as a condition of matriculating.

Merriam-Webster’s definition, which was added in 2018, would also include a fair number of public health experts and officials, including some at the World Health Organization (WHO), who have warned against mandatory vaccination schemes.

Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO’s immunization department has stated that she doesn’t “think that mandates are the direction to go in here, especially for these [coronavirus] vaccines.”

“It is a much better position to encourage and facilitate the vaccination without those kinds of requirements” she explained.

Dr. Kevin Pham, formerly a visiting policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has spent much of the last year working on COVID policy, told National Review that “there are a lot of compelling reasons to get a vaccine, but giving up on that to simply force people to take it will only solidify resistance against the vaccines now, and any public health effort in the future.” Dr. Pham noted that “mask mandates ended up being broad and untargeted” and “came at the cost of destroying public trust.”

“The most important part of public health is the ‘public'” he argues. “Without the public’s cooperation, all health goals will be out of reach, at least in a nation of free people.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition of “anti-vaxxer” — a term Dr. Pham believes is unhelpful even when applied accurately — “conflate[s] a matter of clinical science with a matter of good governance.”

This is not the first time that Merriam-Webster has been accused of altering language with political motivations. Last year during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing, Merriam-Webster changed its definition of sexual preference to indicate that it was offensive in an effort to support Senator Mazie Hirono’s erroneous suggestion that Barrett’s use of the term indicated bias against the LGBT community.

Merriam-Webster has not responded to a request for comment.

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