IT should be one of the words that define these strange times.

And yet nobody – in Scotland at least – can quite agree on what to call the little needle prick that puts life-saving vaccines in to our arms.

Is it a “jab”? Or a “jag”?

Well, the correct answer, of course, is that there is no right or wrong way to speak about injections. Americans, after all, will even call them “shots”.

That does not stop people getting fired up about whether you say “jab” or “jag”.

The drive to correct each other’s speech, after all, can be hard to resist.

Most of this is in good humour – with Glaswegians on social media sites declaring “jag” to be the ‘right” word and English people retorting that, no, it is “jab”.

This is all harmless patter, like those endless pub chats about how to pronounce the “o” in pork or scone. Everybody has a view. And, English, with its clumsy orthography, does not have any accents to put on its vowels to settle the matter for sure.

But the jab/jag issue, alas, is not all fun and games. At times it has turned quite nasty. Why? Because one of the two words – very wrongly, as it happens – is seen as Scots and the other not.

In fact, rather than just being a bit of a joke, the jag-or-jab debate actually raises all sorts of socio-linguistic issues.

First, there are those who balk at any Scottishism. Social media is full of sometimes incandescent rage – usually from accounts with more red-white-and-blue than a royal wedding street party – at people who slip into Scots.

And then there are folk, even those who are far more comfortable with English than Scots, who get strangely protective about just a handful of Scottish words, usually the kind plastered on mugs and T-shirts and sold in tacky tartan gift shops alongside cuddly Nessies and supermarket-grade shortbread.

Earlier this month Radio Scotland’s flagship breakfast news programme Good Morning Scotland was discussing vaccines. Presenters used “jab”.

A fringe but well-followed Scottish nationalist account called MSM Monitor was enraged. “They have been conditioned to accept it without thought,” he or she declared.

“A product of colonial culture.”

Well, that is hot nonsense. Because “jab” and ‘jag” are both Scots words. True, you’re perhaps more likely to say “jag” in Glasgow, or “jab” in Aberdeen.

Using a Scots word is hardly evidence of being “colonised”. But then neither is using an English one. Or writing – or reading – an article in The Herald in English, for that matter. Or tweeting in English.

But what is going on here? Why do people want to police how others talk?

“Everybody has opinions on language simply because everybody uses language. It’s a little bit like all of us are experts in gas physics just because we breathe,” says Joanna Kopaczyk, senior lecturer in Scots and English at Glasgow University.

“The way we speak says more about us than just the words we utter. It’s the basis of first impressions and wakes up all kinds of associations and stereotypes.

“So if somebody’s language use doesn’t conform to a model another person has formed in their head through education or some sort of subjective process, that other person may feel the need to impose their model on others.”

Linguists talk about prescriptivism, when people insist on certain usages. Up to a point, this isn’t a bad thing: all our mums and dads taught us to say “feet” and not “foots” and we pretty much all agree that this, frankly weird, plural is correct in English.

English – unlike Scots – has been standardised. But not completely. It includes a lot of variety, including in Scotland, where a lot of standard English language borrowed from Scots. Like jag and jab. And variety, as the old saying goes, is the spice of life.

“I see prescriptivism as the extreme end of language standardisation,” says Ms Kopaczyk.“It’s like language police and it’s designed to make people feel uneasy about their primary human asset – their own language. Standard language is useful but even within the standard there’s always a degree of variation, and staunch prescriptivists often get caught up in relatively pointless battles over details.”

The English we speak in Scotland now is relatively new, a product first of 18th century polite refinement and prescriptivism, a century or two of schooling and century mass newspapers, radio and TV. All these processes have marginalised Scots.

But is telling Scots, even Scots speakers, who say “jab” that they should say “jag” not just signs of a similar creeping standardisation of the Scots language?

Maybe. But it will not work, according to Ms Kopaczyk.

“The future of Scots is not going to be decided by prescriptivists but by its users,” she says. “There are many examples of languages which have a lot of variation within their standard, so there’s no reason to fear that one dialect of Scots will be promoted at the cost of other dialects.”

Why are some Scots hyper-protective of specific words and phrases – like jag?

MsKopaczyk goes back a few hundred years, to the way some Scots language retained prestige, were seen as permissible.

“While 18th-century prescriptivism ousted Scots from formal contexts, there was still a tacit agreement that this language was appropriate for

light entertainment and some literary uses – e.g. Walter Scott’s characters speak Scots, and of course we celebrate Robert Burns every year,” she says.

“So having a mug with glaikit on it or a tea towel with ‘funny Scottish phrases’ that happen to be all Scots is a product of this situation. In my view, it’s fine to have glaikit on mugs as

long as you can also have a serious newspaper article written in Scots, normalising this language for the benefit of the 1.5 million people who claim to use it.”

Scots-language writer and broadcaster Alistair Heather believes there is room for jags and jabs in Scotland.

“When aabdy I ken gets caaed in fir their Covid protection, its their jag they are aff tae get,” says Mr Heather. “But Scots isnae monolithic, an dialects hae different adaptations. Jab an Jag baith hae auld Scots roots.

It seems that mibbie in some airts an pairts ‘jab’ wis tane on when hypodermic needles cam on the scene, while in ithers it wis ‘jab’ that wis yaised.

“As is aye the case wi Twitterstorms like this ane; hae yer fun, but dinnae get ower fashed.”