Lesson of the Day: ‘Oxford’s 2020 Word of the Year? It’s Too Hard to Isolate’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Oxford’s 2020 Word of the Year? It’s Too Hard to Isolate’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “Oxford’s 2020 Word of the Year? It’s Too Hard to Isolate” by Jennifer Schuessler

Every year, Oxford Languages, the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, chooses what it considers the “word of the year,” a selection that is meant to “reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the past 12 months. In 2019, it was “climate emergency.” In 2018, it was “toxic.” In 2017, it was “youthquake.” But this year is different. Instead of crowning a single word as the winner, Oxford has chosen to honor the coronavirus pandemic’s swift and widespread affect on the English language.

In this lesson, you will learn about the many ways that this year has changed the English language, according to Oxford’s report. Then, you will consider your own choices for the Word of the Year in 2020.

The pandemic has dominated public conversation over the past year, and given us a new collective vocabulary almost overnight.

We’re using some words and phrases more than we ever have before (“social distancing”) and in new and different ways (“remote” is no longer most associated with “village” or “island” but with “learning” and “working”). We’ve even created new words that are uniquely suited to this moment (“doomscrolling,” anyone?).

What are some of the ways the year 2020 has changed the way you talk?

Brainstorm a list of words or phrases you’re using now more than ever before, or words you’ve begun using for the first time this year. You might also consider how you’re using old terms differently (for example, “stay-at-home”). Slang, abbreviations, emojis and portmanteaus (blend words, like “infodemic,” “zoombombing” and “coronapocalypse”) are welcome!

If you are in a classroom context, compare your list with those of your classmates. What patterns or commonalities do you notice? What are some of the most significant ways in which the year 2020 has had an effect on the English language?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. Why did Oxford Languages choose to forgo the selection of a single word to represent 2020?

2. How does Oxford typically select its word of the year? On what data and evidence does it base its choice?

3. Ms. Schuessler writes that the pandemic has “given us a new collective vocabulary almost overnight.” What are at least three ways, according to the article, that the pandemic has had an effect on the English language? Give examples of each.

4. Why is the use of the word “coronavirus” this year unprecedented?

5. How would you describe the tone of the most-used words in 2020? How does that compare with Oxford’s short lists from years past? What do you think could explain this difference?

6. Oxford says its selection for Word of the Year is meant to “reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the preceding year, while also having “lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” Do you think its choice for 2020 meets this criteria? Why or why not?

What would be your choice for Word of the Year?

To start, return to the list you made in the warm-up and narrow it down to a short list of words that you think are worthy of the title of Word of the Year.

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the only reason this year has been unprecedented; a national movement for Black lives, a contested presidential election, and record-breaking wildfires and hurricanes have all given us new and different words, phrases and ways of using language. So add any other words to your short list, related to these events or not, that you think meet Oxford’s criteria of reflecting “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of 2020, and having “lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

Then, from that list, choose the word that you think best encapsulates the year 2020. (If you’re in a classroom context, you might hold a classwide vote.) Write a pitch to Oxford Languages explaining why you think this word deserves the title of Word of the Year based on its criteria.

If you speak a language other than English, what would your choice for Word of the Year be in that language? What effect has it had on the language and culture of the community it is spoken in? Would your choice be the same or different from your choice in English? Why?


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