2021’s Word of the Year–Consensus Choice of a Controversial Topic

What’s in a word? Well, one word, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2021, provides a spot-on identification of the issue of the year. While controversy about many things swirled in 2021, selection of this particular word cannot be counted among them. The honored word? Vaccine.

Whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated, were mandated to be vaccinated or voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, distrust scientists and/or the government or adhere to what scientists and/or the government advise, everyone can agree that “vaccine” (not “grease” as the lyrics in a song in the movie “Grease” state) is THE word that has gotten everyone’s attention this year. The split in opinion comes when the impact of the word is evaluated. “Vaccine” can be viewed as a promising medical solution to the pandemic or the source of societal division and political bickering.

How impactful has the word “vaccine” been in our society during 2021? Prolific use of the term led people to look up exactly what it means using a dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster’s website, lookups for “vaccine” increased 601% over 2020 and 1,048% over 2019. That’s mind-blowing to me not just because such interest in the meaning of “vaccine” existed but because people were actually using dictionaries.

Not only did current events cause people to look up the meaning of “vaccine,” but it prompted Merriam-Webster to update the definition of that term. Why? Because the COVID vaccine triggers an immune response in an entirely new way than the previous dictionary definition explained. The former entry, stating stated that a vaccine used an inactivated form of the virus, was revised and expanded in May 2021 to include instances where vaccines are made with genetic material, messenger RNA or mRNA, instead. Medical advances impact dictionaries as well as people.

Use of the word “vaccine” may have been prolific during 2021, but the word itself has been around for some time. It dates back to the 1880’s, still a relatively recent entry into the English language. The derivation of the term is quite interesting. “Vaccine” comes from the Latin word “vacca” which means cow. Holy cow! What does a cow have to do with a vaccine? Interestingly the word was initially used to refer to an inoculation using doses of cowpox found to protect humans against smallpox. Think that method was as controversial back then as the COVID vaccine is now?

To emphasize how current events affect our use of language, Merriam-Webster dubbed “pandemic” the 2020 word of the year. But with the administration of the first doses of the COVID vaccine in December 2020, the stage was set for pandemic’s successor to be “vaccine.”

And even though they didn’t attain the lofty status of 2021 word of the year, new words related to the coronavirus were among the 455 new words Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary in 2021. These included “breakthrough” (an infection occurring in someone who is fully vaccinated against an infectious agent) and “super-spreader” (an event or location where a significant number of people contract the same communicable disease). Let’s use those “new” words in a sentence. How many celebrants will become ill with a breakthrough after spending the evening at a likely super-spreader such as New Year’s Eve in Times Square?

As evidenced by the addition of coronavirus-related words to the dictionary, the English language is alive and ever-changing. New words and phrases are invented all the time with current events frequently behind new dictionary entries. Yup! Thanks to consumer habits, “air fryer” was added by Merriam-Webster in 2021 as was “doorbell camera.” And let’s not forget the impact of pop culture. “Dad bod” (a physique typical of an average father–slightly overweight and not particularly muscular) is officially now a recognized dictionary entry.

But new words, surprisingly, are not the dictionary entries which are the most looked up. Merriam-Webster.com identifies “apathetic,” “cynical,” and “integrity” as three of the top ten words whose meanings are searched. I can understand the need to know what “integrity” really means since a dearth of public figures modeling it can be found. Think I’m being a tad cynical here? Also, in my experience, most folks are strongly for or strongly against a COVID vaccine/vaccine mandate; they are simply not “apathetic.” No one says, “Meh!” when asked to voice their opinion on these subjects.

Whether or not you agree that “vaccine” is the best word to sum up the year 2021, I think we can all agree we are glad 2021 is drawing to a close. The year 2022 is almost here, bringing the hope and promise of a blank slate and a new beginning to all. Let’s hope the need to frequently use the word “vaccine” will fade, and the pandemic will wane and become nothing but a bad memory. Perhaps one day we’ll only think of “vaccine” as a dictionary entry and not a political hot potato.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you agree with the selection of “vaccine” as the word of the year for 2021? If not, what word would would you suggest? Were you aware such a large number of new words are added to the dictionary annually? How do you view words knowing that their definitions can and may be revised from time to time?

Project Cornucopia–Troops To Get Food Made By Microorganisms?

Ready for a scrumptious Christmas feast? The availability of such a holiday meal, or any meal for that matter, is much more attainable for us here at home as opposed to troops away in combat zones or remote locations. But never fear! The Defense Department has unveiled a research project called Cornucopia which aims to reduce the time, cost, and complexity of delivering meals to such locations by finding ways to make nutritious foodstuffs on site. And it is to be accomplished by making things to eat out of thin air, water, and electricity.

Perhaps I am overly cautious when it comes to government plans, but I am a bit suspicious of this goal. Being a writer, I pay close attention to the words which are used. To my way of thinking, “foodstuffs” and “food” aren’t necessarily the same thing. And, after doing some digging on this topic, I am definitely on to something.

The government agency overseeing Project Cornucopia is DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA’s idea is to serve deployed troops meals made on site by microorganisms using water, air, electricity and little else. So far, this plan sounds less than appetizing to me. In fact, it sounds icky.

Why would anyone want to resort to using local microorganisms to provide a delicious and nutritious meal? (“Delicious,” of course, would be in the eyes of the consumer.) It’s easy for DARPA employees to call something “delicious” when they aren’t the ones having to eat it day after day. But I digress.) Producing “foodstuffs” onsite reduces the burden on the military to transport food to troops in far-off and remote locations and frees up space to ship other necessities and equipment. Ability to produce “foodstuffs” on site would also protect against supply chain issues assuming an adequate supply of water and electricity is available for this transportable system.

A formal announcement of the Cornucopia program was made on December 10, 2021. DARPA is looking for potential research partners who are interested in helping to design and test mobile systems for converting oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and electricity into microbes that would in turn produce “food molecules,” including proteins, fats, carbs, and dietary fiber. Mmm, mmm. Is your mouth watering? Mine isn’t.

And just what microorganisms would be utilized to produce “palatable” food? Bacteria, microalgae, protzoa, and fungi would be the pantry staples. Anyone else losing their appetite reading about these food sources? But having the product taste good isn’t the only concern. What is given as a meal to troops must provide complete nutrition as well. The fighting machine has to be fueled for carrying out its duties. An army travels on its stomach, you know.

While such a scientific endeavor by DARPA may seem like a science fiction project, the idea of producing food made with microbes isn’t new. In recent years a number of companies have started up to develop microbe-produced foods for environmental reasons because traditional food production is energy-intensive. Using microbes instead results in reduced land use and less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming and cattle raising.

One such company which offers an alternative to meat and plant based meat replacements is Nature’s Fynd. This Chicago-based business makes a product called Fy Protein using a microorganism found in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. I may be a fan of the great outdoors, but protein derived from a microorganism in water found in a national park just doesn’t catch my fancy at meal time.

But mouth-watering meals haven’t been what the military has offered troops for decades anyway. For approximately four decades, a “Meal, Ready to Eat,” or MRE, provided those in the field or remote locations with sustenance. Let’s just say that the recipients of these supplies which didn’t require refrigeration were less than impressed.

How do we know that? The conclusion is easily reached from the nicknames given these self-contained individual food rations distributed when organized food facilities were not available. Calling them “Meals Rejected by Everyone” and “Meals Rarely Edible” can in no way be seen as positive feedback (no pun intended) by the consumers. On the bright side, the military has no where to go but up. Maybe “food molecules” produced from microorganisms are tastier than rations with a required shelf life of some three years.

The use of MRE’s, and thus presumably “foodstuffs” made from microorganisms, reaches beyond simply feeding troops in spartan conditions and/or at remote locations. These rations have been put to use to provide humanitarian aid and to assist in times of natural disasters. For example, the National Guard distributed them in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

While the actual food which might be produced based on the research and development done for Project Cornucopia might not be five star quality, finding a way to ensure sustenance in an environmentally friendly way during difficult conditions such as a natural disaster or combat is a laudatory goal. Thinking outside the box to address issues is often called for. But for now, I’ll take my holiday meal the old-fashioned way with food produced from traditional farming and give the microorganisms the day off. And I hope and pray the troops representing us abroad receive the same kind of meal no matter where they are serving.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you ever eaten an MRE? If so, how palatable was it? Is coming up with a system to make “foodstuffs” from microorganisms a good idea? Why or why not? Does knowing the origin of something you are asked to eat lead to preconceived ideas about what it will taste like?

Cigarettes Up In Smoke? New Zealand Proposal Outlaws Smoking For The Next Generation

In the near future, where there’s smoke in New Zealand it may not be from a youth firing up a cigarette. Proposed legislation in the Land of the Long White Cloud aims to ban smoking for the next generation. Is this smoking cessation goal a legislative pipe dream or will the Long White Cloud in the island country soon be anything but cigarette smoke?

Last Thursday, proposed legislation was announced which would progressively raise the legal age, currently set at 18, for buying tobacco in New Zealand. Individuals who are age 14 when the law takes effect would never legally be able to purchase tobacco in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Holy smoke!

The proposed legislation will be considered by the New Zealand Parliament in 2022. Its passage is anticipated since the Labour Party, which holds a majority in the Parliament, has been pushing the Smokefree 2025 Action Plan as one of its headline policies. (You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that the majority rules.) The Action Plan’s goal is for less than 5% of New Zealanders to be smokers by 2025.

Why is smoking, of all things, being targeted by New Zealand lawmakers? The 4,000 to 5,000 people who die each year in New Zealand from smoking-related illnesses amounts to approximately 15% of the country’s 2019 population. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in New Zealand and causes one in four cancer cases there. This harm is particularly concentrated in indigenous and low-income communities.

On the bright side, the percentage of adults smoking in that country has declined over the last decade. Currently, 13.4% are classified as smokers as compared to 18.2% of smokers in 2011/2012. But concern exists for the next generation. The government has determined 4 out of 5 smokers start smoking before they are 18. Accordingly, the plan of action is to make sure that young people never start smoking. Pretty smart! If they don’t start, they don’t need to be concerned about stopping.

The proposed legislation seeks to nip smoking by youths in the bud (or perhaps butt, as in cigarette butt) by making tobacco products unavailable to them. Per its plan, anyone born in 2008 could not purchase cigarettes or tobacco products in their lifetime. Aww! If that’s the worst problem these youth have, they should be extremely grateful.

In addition to targeting the age of a lawful consumer, the suggested measure would target sellers of tobacco products. The number of sites authorized to sell these products would be reduced. So, both the (lawful) demand and available supply of the products are being targeted. And just in case the consumer doesn’t know he wants this product, he is less likely to be informed that he does. Tougher restrictions on tobacco advertising would be imposed.

But wait. There’s more. Even if a person is an authorized buyer, can see/read watered down ads telling them how they want the product, and can find authorized sales sites to purchase cigarettes, they may not want them. Why? Yet another proposal would decrease the legal amount of nicotine in the products to very low levels. The user is getting less nicotine bang for his buck–actually that would be for his New Zealand dollar a/k/a a “kiwi.”

While these proposals may seem harsh, they are not the first nor the only restrictive measure focused on tobacco products. New Zealand already has imposed high taxes on cigarette sales and requires plain packaging. But the prior measures haven’t eradicated the smoking problem, so apparently more pressure is needed to make smoking unaffordable and inaccessible.

To no one’s surprise, opponents of the proposed legislation are popping up and expressing concerns. If passed, the measure would contribute to the growing black market for tobacco. Organized crime groups are apparently already involved in smuggling tobacco products into New Zealand on a large scale. So, I guess a choice between lower crime and saving lives is presented. (Seems like a no-brainer to me, but no one asked me.)

Admittedly, the New Zealand plan would be the perhaps the world’s toughest on the purchase and consumption of tobacco. But, maybe the plan doesn’t even go far enough. What it doesn’t do is to regulate vaping. Many smokers turn to vaping in an effort to kick the (real) cigarette habit; it is also a highly popular activity for youth. Is New Zealand simply kicking the can down the road and getting rid of (real) cigarette smoking only to have to deal with e-cigarettes later?

Some may ask if such draconian measures as have been proposed in New Zealand are truly justified. Is smoking really that big of a problem? The answer is yes and not just in New Zealand. An estimated 1.3 billion (that’s billion with a “B”) tobacco users populate the world. Per the World Health Organization (“WHO”), tobacco consumption is “one of the biggest health threats the world has ever faced.” Including second-hand smoke, smoking kills over 8 million people EACH YEAR. Health concerns aside, cigarette smoking is also an environmental concern. Cigarette butts are one of the most common components of litter.

If passed and successful, the New Zealand legislation may be the model for other countries to follow. Nearby Australia has already taken some steps to reduce cigarette smoking. Back in 2012, it was the first country to mandate plain packaging of cigarettes. The U.S. would be a tougher stage on which to advocate for banning the smoking of “death sticks.” Someone in the U.S. might argue the “pursuit of happiness” referenced in the Declaration of Independence extends to the right to smoke them. Who knows what will happen after the smoke clears from such arguments?

Any effort to ban cigarettes could light a fire of controversy over the ability (right?) to light up. But I’m not blowing smoke to say lots of people won’t shed a tear if cigarettes are ultimately less affordable or even banned. Personally, you won’t need to hand me a tissue.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Would New Zealand be going too far if it bans cigarettes from the next generation? Why or why not? Do you foresee such steps ever being taken in the U.S.? Were you aware that the use of tobacco products was considered such a worldwide health problem?

Off With Our Head! Barbados Removes Queen Elizabeth As Head Of State

One head was removed, and another immediately took its place. No, this scenario isn’t from the latest horror movie. It describes the events in Barbados on November 30th when a new republic came into being at the stroke of midnight. In order for that political transition to occur, Queen Elizabeth II had to be removed as the country’s head of state and a new head installed. While no body parts were detached, the Queen is no longer the titular head of this tiny Caribbean nation of about 300,000. And more head removal may lie ahead.

To understand why the Queen is out, some background on and history of Barbados is necessary. It is an island country in the West Indies, the most eastern of the Caribbean islands. British ships arrived on the beautiful shores of Barbados in 1625. Two years later in 1627 Barbados became a British colony, making it one of the world’s oldest colonies. Ultimately, the island was considered the “jewel in the crown” of Britain’s colonies. And of course, a tangible crown was worn by the British monarch who ruled the colonies.

The introduction of sugar cane from Dutch Brazil in 1640 transformed the colony’s economy. While growing sugar cane brought a sweet profit, the manner in which that profit was obtained was not so sweet. Britain invested in plantation slavery on the island in Barbados to grow sugar cane; enslaved Africans worked the sugar cane farms. Between 1627 and 1833, some 600,000 Africans were brought to the colony for that purpose.

Today Barbados is a wealthy Caribbean nation. Given its sugar plantation filled past, it should come as no surprise that close to 90% of Barbadians are of Afro-Caribbean descent and mixed descent. While sugar cane is still grown there, the industry is in decline. And what else is declining is British control.

Barbados declared its independence from Britain in 1966. It then became a constitutional monarchy. Nevertheless, residents of the island continued to adhere to British traditions like afternoon tea, cricket (the sport, not the insect), and horse races. The apron strings (er, royal robe strings) from the Queen were not cut; she still selected the Barbados’ Governor General. So, Barbadians were “independent” but not able to choose who was in charge of their country’s affairs.

A general desire to pursue decolonization was whipped into a frenzy in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter protests. Debates about Barbados’ connection with colonial rule came under a microscope. In a push to get rid of symbols of oppression, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s statue was removed in the country’s capital of Bridgetown. And in September 2020, it was announced Barbados would move to be a republic, i.e., the Queen would no longer be its head of state. “Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state,” were the exact words used.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and that 2020 declaration didn’t come to fruition until November 30, 2021–the 55th anniversary of Barbados’ independence. The momentous event was celebrated with a military parade, gun salutes, a mounted honor guard, the lowering of the royal standard, and fireworks. The colonial past was also represented; Prince Charles, son and heir to the throne of the head of state being ousted by Barbados, was an honored guest at the ceremony in National Heroes Square in Bridgetown. Addressing the celebrants, he referred to the “appalling atrocity of slavery” in his remarks. To give a current day vibe to the celebration, singer Rihanna, a native Barbadian, attended and was declared a “National Hero of Barbados.” She shone “bright like a diamond” at this recognition.

Transforming to a republic meant a new leader had to be sworn in as president of Barbados. But the new had an old look to it. President Sandra Mason, a 72 year old attorney and judge, was a previous royal appointee as Barbados’ Governor-General. Barbadians elected Mason as their first president in October 2021. She was sworn in as soon as Barbados officially became a republic on November 30th.

Even though Queen Elizabeth is out of head as state in Barbados, ties to the British remain. Barbados will still be in the 54 country Commonwealth of Nations f/k/a the British Commonwealth. This political association, comprised of member states almost all of which are former British territories, has Queen Elizabeth as its head. So, apparently Barbadians will be on friendly terms with their previous head of state.

The changes in Barbados may simply be the start of of further upheaval for the Queen. (As if she didn’t have enough going on in her own family much less the Commonwealth.) Dominica, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago have previously removed the Queen as their head of state. But now other Commonwealth nations are considering separating from Britain due to its imperialist role in society. In particular, such talk is being heard in Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Winds are blowing in the Caribbean, and they aren’t ocean breezes. They are winds of change. The winds blew British ships into Barbados in the 1600’s, and changing political winds have now blown the Queen out as its head of state. Due to an imperialist past, Britain and her Queen may face blow back in additional Caribbean countries. “Off with her as head” may soon be a rallying cry on other islands.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Could you easily pick out Barbados on a map or globe? What, if any, significance does a titular head of state have? Is the removal of the Queen as head of state merely a symbolic gesture? Why or why not? Can removing a head of state change the past?

Here’s Looking at You, Kid! Army Cadets KID-nap Wrong Goat

If you’ve seen one goat, you’ve seen them all, right? They’re furry creatures who’ll eat about anything. An adult male, a billy, has horns and a goatee and their young are called kids. Nevertheless, goats are not interchangeable. A group of Army cadets recently learned this lesson the hard way through a clandestine operation to KID-nap Navy’s mascot prior to the upcoming traditional Army-Navy football game. Oops! Mission fail as the wrong goat was taken.

So, wait. Navy’s mascot is a GOAT? What on earth (or the sea perhaps) does a goat have to do with naval operations? Well, historically, apparently it was a lot.

Prior to the availability of refrigeration, goats were fixtures on Navy ships serving a variety of functions. They provided a source for fresh dairy products and meat. Since goats will eat pretty much whatever is placed in front of them, the animals also equated to living garbage disposals. Goats take up much less room than cows and are more sure-footed (think rolling seas). And should the worst occur, i.e., goat overboard, they can swim. Goats can still be found on Navy ships today, but their purpose has changed; they are viewed as pets and morale boosters. I’m sure the goats’ morale is boosted knowing that they are no longer seen as a convenient food source.

A live goat first appeared as the Navy mascot way back in 1893 at the fourth ever Army-Navy football game. El Cid, the pet aboard the cruiser New York, bleated on the sidelines to urge the midshipmen on to a 6-3 victory. The win was chalked up to the presence of a goat (as opposed to the great coaching of and playing by the Navy team–sorry, guys!), so the tradition of having a live goat mascot appear at the game was born.

With a permanent mascot in place, a name change was in order. Goodbye, El Cid; hello, Bill–likely Billy to his Navy chums. Most of the over thirty Navy goat mascots since El Cid have been dubbed Bill with a Roman Numeral designation following.

But boys will be boys, and Bill (whatever the number designation happened to be) became the target of “spirit missions” by the rival Army cadets. Those sneaky cadets have stolen Bill at least ten times, producing him at the storied football game between the service academies in an attempt to shame their military opponents on the gridiron.

Over the years, things began to get out of hand. One spirit mission involved the cutting of telephone lines and the typing up of Navy employees to facilitate the goat-napping. Boys! Boys! So the problem was resolved in the early ’90’s in a non-military manner–no weapons, blood, or fighting were involved. Officials from both academies civilly signed a memo of agreement banning the kidnapping of mascots. And while they were at it, they forbid the kidnapping of cadets and midshipmen too.

But a memo is simply a piece of paper with words written on it, right? Despite being told, “No, no!,” the Army cadets decided to conduct a spirit mission this year to prepare for the Army-Navy game set for December 11th. The weekend before Thanksgiving, a group of Army cadets drove four hours to a private farm in Annapolis to carry out their goatnapping operation.

Alas, the mission didn’t turn out as intended. The cadets forget to use their library voices, and the noise they made startled the goats. Yes, goats plural. Not only the current Navy mascot resides at the farm, but Bill has predecessor Bills and a Bill understudy living there with him. The spooked goats started running with the cadets running after them. (Doesn’t this sound like a great children’s book?) In the confusion, only one goat could be grabbed and–you guessed it–it wasn’t the current Bill, Bill XXXVII.

Can you blame the cadets for this error? I mean, they did get a curly-haired Angora goat, it was male, and it was living at the farm for the Navy mascot. HOWEVER, the nabbed goat was an old, arthritic, one-horned Bill who’s been retired since 2015, Bill XXXIV. Hmm. Would reasonable minds conclude the Navy midshipmen revered this goat at their current mascot? (I’m betting no.) But the cadets couldn’t come home empty-handed, could they?

To the embarrassment of Navy, the story leaked to the public. The New York Times reported the botched mission describing it as a “Bay of Pigs-style embarrassment.” Yikes! The (wrong) goat was returned safely and received a clean bill of health after being checked out by a vet. He also now has some great stories to share about Army with his buddies at the goat farm.

In Army’s defense, what do they know about goats? Their mascot, which debuted in 1899, is a mule. Why a mule? Such animals had been used for generations as moving machines, i.e., hauling Army gear. A select few mules serve as mascots for West Point and who are trained by select cadets. Just a thought, but Army may want to form a second training group at the U.S.M.A. to teach the cadets what the Navy mascot looks like.

It should be great fun to watch the Army-Navy game this year. I can just imagine the signs which the Navy fans might be waving for the cameras. “Did getting Bill XXXIV get Army’s goat?” “Army caught napping in goatnapping.” “All goats are not created equal.” “That’s our mascot on the field. The one with TWO horns.” “We always get our mule.”

And who will I be rooting for come December 11th? As an Air Force “dependent” for decades, I don’t have a goat or even a mule in this game. I simply like watching football, enjoy a rivalry, and (per past history) can’t resist a man in uniform (there’ll be a few thousand in attendance.) And I’m expecting everyone to keep their hands to themselves–no mascot mischief, please! (We’ll be looking at you cadets….)

WONDER-ing Woman:

Is mascot stealing simply good fun or a crime? Who are you rooting for in the Army-Navy game? Why? Are you surprised at the choice of mascots for these service academies?