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Covid-19 Vaccine Card Wins Symbol of the Year Vote for 2021

CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card indicating first of two injections from Sumter County, Florida. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attributio...

STANFORD, CA - Affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford University chose the Covid-19 vaccine card as the Symbol of the Year from 2021, in their tenth annual vote for notable symbols.

Covid vaccine cards took various forms in different countries around the world. Although the term "card" generally referred to the paper version, digital versions were created as well and served an equivalent function. A vaccine card records, for the recipient, specific vaccines received and their locations and dates. But such cards have taken on social and official significance in many contexts, serving as tokens, certificates, or passports. They allowed their holders to provide evidence of vaccination, which was often required by public places, schools, employers, event hosts, and border officials.

The winning symbol was nominated by two members of the Symbolic Systems community:

  • Jared Poblete (Class of 2023), who wrote: "An all-important, pocket-sized representation of the ever-complicating avenues of the ongoing pandemic -- trust and mistrust, hope and fear, personal freedoms and public duties. With or without one, a proof of vaccination embodies a permanent scar and badge for life as we know it now."

  • Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "Covid-19 vaccine cards are the primary tool used by governments and other institutions to segregate society in response to the pandemic.  A person who is able and willing to present a vaccine card can gain access to employment, education, and other opportunities that are systematically denied to those who are unable or unwilling to present a card."

One hundred and forty-nine alumni/ae, students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the Program cast ballots in a system in which each voter could vote for any nominated symbol as Symbol of the Year, Other Notable Symbol, or neither. All of the program's alums, current students, and faculty/staff were eligible to vote. The ballot stated that the purpose of the vote was "to recognize the important role that symbols play in our world" ("as affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program").

"In the U.S., Covid-19 vaccine cards became a symbol, not just of having been vaccinated, but also of debates over vaccine mandates -- which became a highly charged political issue," said Todd Davies, associate director of Symbolic Systems, who has administered the Symbol of the Year vote each year since 2012. "The vaccine card is an example of a token -- a type of symbol that serves as proof or evidence. The brief history of the Covid-19 vaccine card illustrates how symbolic meanings can accrete and morph over time, reflecting how a symbol is used and understood."

In addition to the Symbol of the Year, voters also chose 24 other Notable Symbols out of the 42 nominated symbols, which were submitted between December 19th and 24th, 2021, with voting taking place December 27th, 2021, through January 2nd, 2022. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators. Selection indicated only that the symbol had been significant during the year, rather than an endorsement of any point of view associated with it.

Other Notable Symbols from 2021 chosen by voters for their significance were:

  • the Capitol Riot - nominated by Nawaf Alnaji (B.S., 2018), who wrote: "The act was a symbolic culmination of the extreme political polarization that had been building up for years, and a loud and violent rejection of the US election system itself. I consider it a symbol, because its weight and repercussions has been mostly symbolic."

  • Officer Goodman vs the mob - nominated by two affiliates:

    • Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "Nothing captured the turning point of politics in the US quite like the image of Officer Eugene Goodman facing down political insurgents on January 6, 2021. His mask tugged down, his body surrounded by the venerable marble columns of the US Capitol, with the specter of insurrections creeping into frame."

    • Bruno-Ken Shiozawa (B.S., 1995), who wrote: "A single person, Capitol Officer Eugene Goodman, stands his ground against a violent frenzied mob bent on finding members of Congress that they stalk in the Capitol with menacing words, symbols and tones. If not for Goodman's composure, quick thinking, and courage, the country might have plunged into unspeakable tragedy, catastrophe and chaos."

  • the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine - nominated by Josh Elman (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "The story of 2021 is still COVID-19. The vaccines came this year. They started to give us hope and allow reopening, and they have caused great controversy and further division with the people who have chosen not to get vaccinated."

  • the NFT (non-fungible token) - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are gambles into crypto-currency and blockchain technology. They've taken the art world by storm and represent an attempt to legitimize and validate crypto-currency."

  • "vax" - nominated by Jordy Mont-Reynaud (B.S., 2004), who wrote: "Vaxxed, double vaxxed, boosted. Vaccine mandates, passports, and anti-vaxxers. Opinions differed widely, battle lines were drawn, even the definition of 'fully vaccinated' changed  overnight. Pretty much the only thing we could agree on was that we couldn't stop talking about it. VAX."

  • the Great Resignation - nominated by Adam Tow (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people to re-consider what's important in their lives. Some have chosen to quit their jobs in search of new opportunities or as a result of changes in their work, health, and family circumstances."

  • recognition of Juneteenth as a U.S. Federal holiday - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "In June, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making June 19th a Federal holiday in the U.S. Congressional passage of the Act capped a decades long campaign led by activist Opal Lee to recognize and commemorate the 1865 date of a military order to free slaves in Texas -- the last Confederate state with legal slavery."

  • bundled Bernie Sanders on Inauguration Day - nominated by two affiliates:

    • Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "Bernie Sanders, bundled in his coat and knit gloves. An image of cynical hope to kick off the year and set the note for a new presidential administration."

    • Danya Adib-Azpeitia (Class of 2021, Coterm '22), who wrote: "President Biden's inauguration was monumental in many respects, but one of its most salient representations is the image of Bernie Sanders wearing knit mittens while socially distancing. Not only did it launch a firestorm of memes and reflect cultural anxiety, it also raised $1.8 million for charity, illustrating the power of sartorial choice."

  • the QR code - nominated by Danya Adib-Azpeitia (Class of 2021, Coterm '22), who wrote: "The pandemic's second year ushered in many changes, including QR codes' resurgence for sharing information, such as digital dining menus. Sterile, touch-free, and technological, the QR code represents the shift in how we communicate and understand the world around us in a 'post-pandemic' society, and like COVID, we aren't sure if it's here to stay."

  • the syringe ? - nominated by two affiliates:

    • Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "To vax or not. The Anti-Vaxxer movement. The symbol representing our salvation from the Covid-19 epidemic: the vaccine has defined the year, from doses to boosters, becoming the key to unlocking freedom for those who understand its power, and the symbol of fear and conspiracy for those who don't."

    • Jessica Ewing (B.S., 2004), who wrote: "It feels like this year was all about the vaccine -- it's hope and promise, it's politics and policies, it's limitations as new strains emerged."

  • the "X" gender designation - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "In October, Dana Zzyym, an intersex activist from Colorado, received the first U.S. passport issued with an 'X' mark under 'Sex/Sexe/Sexo.' The issuance of this passport was a milestone for people who identify as neither male nor female. Zzyym waged a legal battle with the State Department for 6 years to obtain their nonbinary-gender passport."

  • Jake Angeli, aka the QAnon Shaman - nominated by Nawaf Alnaji (B.S., 2018), who wrote: "Jake Angeli became a visual representation of the shock and absurdity of the Capitol Riot, the Stop the Steal movement, and the QAnon movement."

  • Insurrectionist carrying Confederate Flag through U.S. Capitol - nominated by Louis Eisenberg (B.S., 2003), who wrote: "Perhaps no photo better captures the unhinged nature of the 1/6 insurrection than this: a Trump supporter ostensibly protesting in defense of the United States -- but doing so by joining a violent mob to breach the Capitol and wave the flag of the traitorous secessionists who fought a war to defend human slavery and topple our democracy."

  • George Floyd - nominated by Jordy Mont-Reynaud (B.S., 2004), who wrote: "One year later, the police officer who killed George Floyd was convicted of murder. But changing the system is harder then getting a conviction. Despite mass protests against police violence, the police still killed over 1000 people in 2021."

  • the Ever Given - nominated by Danya Adib-Azpeitia (Class of 2021, Coterm 2022), who wrote: "On March 23, the Ever Given lodged itself in the Suez Canal and consequentially embedded itself within cultural consciousness. Billions of dollars lost and memes spawned as teams dug the ship out, and for six days, the Ever Given symbolized people's maligned hopes and global economic woes, both battered and embittered by the pandemic."

  • "Stop the Steal" - nominated by Nawaf Alnaji (B.S., 2018), who wrote: "'Stop the Steal' was the symbolic phrase used by many Trump supporters after the 2020 election, culminating in the capitol riot."

  • "supply chain" - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "In 2021, consumers encountered outages, shortages, and delays when attempting to purchase many kinds of goods and products.  The phrase 'supply chain' was often used in explanations as to why these goods and products were less available now than they had been previously."

  • delta (Δ)  - nominated by two affiliates:

    • David Orr (B.S., 2005), who wrote: "It looked like the first world was on a path to exit the pandemic, or at least reopen much of society, by mid 2021, with vaccines widely available. Delta changed the game by being more infectious and more virulent, heralding a new era of more infectious variants that continue to ravage the world. Next up: Omicron."

    • Paul Skokowski (Adjunct Professor), who wrote: "As the delta variant of the coronavirus covid-19 was transmitted across the globe, the symbol 'delta' was used spoken and written probably more than at any time in history."

  • Indigenous People's Day - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "Joe Biden became the first US President to recognize Indigenous People's Day when he declared October 11, 2021, to be a national holiday. First instituted in Berkeley, California, in 1992 -- the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas -- Indigenous People's Day honors Native Americans in opposition to Columbus Day."

  • fitness instructor accidentally films Myanmar coup - nominated by Danya Adib-Azpeitia (Class of 2021, Coterm 2022), who wrote: "2021 was a year of global unrest, superimposed with the rise of content creation on platforms like TikTok. A fitness instructor inadvertently filming the Myanmar military seizing government control captures this dichotomy, ushering in dystopia in its most absurd forms and symbolizing the tension of this year."

  • the Greek alphabet - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "With each variant, the Covid-19 pandemic seems further and further from being over. The variants, denoted by Greek letters, have set the agenda for 2021 through Omicron and possibly beyond."

  • the Signal for Help (domestic violence gesture) - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "The Signal for Help was created by the Canadian Women's Foundation, as a hand gesture to communicate distress due to violence at home. A response to the global increase in domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, the gesture was successfully used by a missing U.S. teen in November, alerting a passing motorist to summon police."

  • "crypto" - nominated by Cristian Cibils Bernardes (B.S., 2016), who wrote: "Between DeFi, NFTs, Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana, and many others -- 2021 was the year where the word 'crypto,' specifically referring to an asset class, went totally mainstream. We see billboards with the word everywhere. A fascinating emergent phenomenon in the midst of unprecedented informational and instituional mistrust."

  • "the big lie" - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director), who wrote: "Shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, Joe Biden called the claim that he had become the President-Elect by fraud 'the big lie' -- reviving a phrase coined by (and characteristic of) Adolph Hitler. The phrase quickly became popular with Trump's critics, and was used by Trump to refer to the idea that Biden had won."

The idea for a "Symbol of the Year" was inspired by the many annual "of the year" designations and awards that are put out by various organizations, especially the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote. Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information.

For "Criteria", the ballot stated the following:

"The Symbol of the Year need not be new to 2021, but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event, or linguistic unit. Types of symbols include the following:

  • a flag or emblem (e.g. the Olympic flag, the AIDS awareness ribbon, a police badge, a union label)

  • a costume, garment, or bodily adornment (e.g. a graduation gown, a cowboy hat, the Guy Fawkes mask)

  • a grapheme, written character, or glyph (e.g. the '+' sign, the lowercase 'e', the Helvetica 'A')

  • a hand signal or gesture (e.g. the 'A-Okay' sign, a military salute)

  • an iconic object or animal (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, the black cat)

  • a symbolic place (e.g. the agora, the Kremlin)

  • an ideogram (e.g. the peace symbol, the caduceus symbol of commerce)

  • a logo (e.g. the Red Cross logo, the Apple Inc. logo)

  • a shape (e.g. the crescent, the upside-down triangle)

  • a pictogram (e.g. the International Symbol of Access, the Universal Recycling Symbol)

  • a screen icon (e.g. the magnifying glass/search icon, the trash icon)

  • an auditory symbol or acoustic signal (e.g. the train whistle, the Intel bongs, the SOS prosign)

  • a tactile symbol (e.g. a braille character, a TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol)

  • a symbolic action or event (e.g. the lighting of a candle, the sun setting)

  • an iconic photograph or image (e.g. Migrant Mother, Guerrillero Heroico)

  • a symbolic work or performance (e.g. the Star Spangled Banner, Romeo and Juliet)

  • a color or pattern (e.g. Navy blue, the Royal Stewart tartan)

  • a posted sign or signal (e.g. an exit sign, a red light)

  • an abbreviation or acronym (e.g. 'lbs.', 'USA')

  • an iconic person or group (e.g. the Pope, the Freedom Riders)

  • a name or nickname (e.g. 'Betty Crocker', 'Joe the Plumber')

  • a word, phrase, or morpheme (e.g. 'email', 'Win one for the Gipper!')

  • a mascot or mythical/imaginary character (e.g. Ronald McDonald, Aphrodite, Yogi Bear)

  • a token or marker (e.g. a dollar bill, a playing piece in Monopoly, a dial position on a clock)"

"Lots of things can be symbols," said Davies, after the first Symbol of the Year vote, "but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status, that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable. But we wanted to draw attention to the significance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life."

Previous Symbols of the Year were:

  • 2012 - the percent sign ("%")

  • 2013 - the equal sign ("=")

  • 2014 - the hands up gesture

  • 2015 - #BlackLivesMatter

  • 2016 - the MAGA hat

  • 2017 - #MeToo

  • 2018 - #MeToo

  • 2019 - "quid pro quo"

  • 2020 - illustrations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus