The history of tje word "vaccine" by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Vaccine

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the origin of the word ‘vaccine’

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Hello everybody and welcome to English with Stephen. My name is Stephen Greene and I am your host.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the origin of the word ‘lockdown’. It was hugely successful and lots of people commented on it on my various social media. It is great to have so many comments, so thank you to everyone and I would encourage you, if you like this episode, to get in touch with your thoughts.

Anyway, lockdown is such a depressing thing that I thought I would look at something a bit more positive and uplifting today. And recently, we have had reasons to be cheerful with the welcome news that there might, finally, be a vaccine to this terrible coronavirus and we can all get out of lockdown and start meeting real people in the real world once again.

So that is what we are going to look at today, the origin of the word ‘vaccine’.

After this…

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And now, back to the origin story for the word ‘vaccine’.

What do you think about when you hear the word ‘vaccine’?

Do you think about science and medicine?

The ability to prevent terrible diseases?

The miracle answer to all our Covid problems?

An international conspiracy led by Bill Gates and George Soros to implant microchips in the world’s population and control as like something out of the film The Matrix?

(Apparently 28% of Americans believe this. It’s no wonder we have so many problems in the world!)

Whatever your associations, I bet it doesn’t have much to do with cows. Right?

Yes, you heard me. Cows. The animals that stand around in fields all day eating grass, producing milk, the source of your steak and a hell of a lot of methane, and saying ‘moo’.

You see, the word ‘vaccine’ comes from the Latin for ‘cow’, ‘vacca’.

And to explain why I have to tell you a story.

In the late 1700s, there was a disease common in cities called smallpox. If you caught this disease you would probably survive, but you would have terrible scars all over your body, and especially on your face.

A man called Dr. Jenner lived and worked around Bristol in England. One day, he was talking to a woman who worked on a farm. She was a milkmaid as her main job was to collect milk from the cows on the farm.

She told Dr. Jenner that it was impossible for her to catch smallpox because previously she had contracted cowpox. There are many different types of pox that affect different animals. Smallpox affects humans and cowpox affects cows.

The woman, whose name has been lost to history, had some small marks on her hands, but nothing on her face.

This got Dr. Jenner thinking and he decided to try an experiment.

First, he extracted the liquid from the hands of a woman who had cowpox. He then found an eight-year-old boy, called James Phipps, and cut the boy’s arm. Next, he put the liquid from the woman’s hand into the cut.

The liquid included the virus called vaccinia which is the Latin name for the virus that creates cowpox.

Now, for modern listeners, this sounds positively barbaric! To infect an eight-year-old child with e puss, or liquid from a different infected person. There were no clinical trials, no supervision and I am pretty sure there was no such thing as informed consent on behalf of the boy or his parents.

But this was the first time anyone had done such a thing. Nobody knew what might happen, or what precautions should really have been taken.

Anyway, six weeks later, the doctor took the boy and exposed him to smallpox. Indeed, the boy was exposed to smallpox a total of 20 times in his life but never developed the disease. In fact, James Phipps lived until the grand old age of 65!

Dr. Jenner’s idea of transferring a relatively harmless disease to create immunity against a more powerful disease was truly revolutionary and, over time, has saved millions of lives. And, with any luck, his experiment with cows, milkmaids, and young boys around Bristol over 200 years ago might give us a vaccination to escape from this Covid hell.

That’s all from me today. Please remember to leave me a message if you have liked this episode. I love hearing what people think about my work. You can find me on most social media as English with Stephen, or you can get links on my site,

So long, and stay safe!

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