Home / Post
COVID-19 vaccines conspiratorial thinking

Misleading viral claim about Merriam-Webster changing its definition of ‘vaccine’

A misleading viral claim about changes Merriam-Webster made to its definition for the word “vaccine” singles out one edit to imply a conspiratorial cover-up — and push false ideas about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Let’s take a look at the facts.

A screenshot of an Instagram post from the verified account of musician David Banner. The post contains a text-based meme that says, “Vaccine used to be defined as a substances [sic] that provides 'immunity' to a specific disease. Now, Merriam Webster has literally changed the definition of 'vaccine' and removed the 'immunity' portion in order to possibly cover for the fact that the Covid 'vaccines' don't actually provide immunity from Covid.” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says “MISLEADING.”
Merriam-Webster did not change the definition of the word “vaccine” as a strategic cover-up for the less-than-perfect efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Merriam-Webster revised its definition of “vaccine” in 2021 to be more scientifically accurate and account for mRNA technology.
The edits did not simply remove references to immunity.
The updates resulted in a significantly more extensive and detailed definition (see graphic below).

A graphic showing screenshots of three versions of the definition for “vaccine” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in 2021 from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The old definition that included a reference to increased “immunity” appears in the archive until Jan. 26, 2021. The current definition (as of Dec. 3, 2021) was online by June 1, 2021.

NewsLit takeaway

Misleading claims about changed definitions have circulated before, including about the pandemic, and often contain ambiguous conspiratorial overtones. In May 2021, the Russian state propaganda “news” outlet RT (Russia Today) falsely claimed that Merriam-Webster had changed its definition of “anti-vaxxer” in a strategic attempt “to fit a narrative” concerning vaccine mandates. This recent rumor about the definition of “vaccine” falsely suggests that there are powerful entities interested in covering up information about the efficacy (which is demonstrated) of COVID-19 vaccines.

Related: “‘Vaccine’ Is Merriam-Webster’s Word Of The Year 2021, Here’s How They Updated Their Definition” (Bruce Y. Lee, Forbes).

NLP’s viral rumor rundown is a regular feature in The Sift, its weekly email newsletter for educators, and in Get Smart About News, its weekly email newsletter for the general public. You can subscribe to these newsletters here. Send suggestions, questions or feedback on this rumor or on the viral rumor rundown blog to thesift@newslit.org.