The etymology behind the vaccine 'roll out'

Steven Poole
·1 min read

Authorities are cautioning against excessive optimism as the Sars-CoV-2 vaccines are rolled out. Actually rolling little glass vials of vaccine along the nation’s streets would be a bad idea. So why does something get rolled out rather than shot out, trundled out, or slid out?

To “roll” in the sense of a rocking motion comes from the French rouler, and is applied from the 14th century to ships and barges, as well as to the action of flattening dough. A flexible verb, “to roll” has also meant “to stagger” (as one drunk), “to wind” (a watch or clock), “to rob” and “to have sex with”, not all of which encourage faith in public health.

In business jargon, it seems likely that a product’s “rollout” (often gradual) derives not from red carpets (as in an 1849 reference to one customarily rolled out for the Pope), but more directly from the early aerospace age (c1947), when the rollout of a new aircraft was the moment it was literally wheeled out of the hangar. Let us hope the current rollout resembles that inspiring sight more than it does another old sense: the mast breaking off a ship.

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