Why 2021 is the year of 'protection'

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T his year, if we are lucky, will be all about “protection”, specifically the amount of it we can expect to acquire against various strains of Covid-19 from various vaccines. Will it amount to a kind of universal shielding of people who are then allowed to go about their normal business?

The word comes from the Latin protegere, meaning “to cover in front”, like a defensive wall or military shield, and has since been adopted to describe other barriers, such as sun cream or contraceptives, that users hope will be reliable.

It has also been adopted as a threatening euphemism, as in the mob concept of “protection money”, or extortion, though to call the high prices charged for some of the coronavirus vaccines “protection money” would doubtless be too cynical.

In the old days, “protection” could also mean diplomatic rather than pharmacological immunity – exemption from arrest or other inconvenience on the orders of a monarch or other power. Perhaps in the post-Brexit world, those Britons who wish to travel abroad will need to carry, as medieval emissaries once did, a “letter of protection”, or vaccination certificate. No doubt it, like our new blue passports, could be printed in Poland.

• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.