Here are the list of candidate words for Wordsmyth Word of the Year 2020. Below each word, you will find links to reference articles and some quotes from those articles as a quick summary for your convenience.

1. climate change


Conservative States Seek Billions to Brace for Disaster. (Just Don’t Call It Climate Change.

The federal funding program, devised after the devastating hurricanes and wildfires of 2017, reflects the complicated politics of global warming in the United States, even as the toll of that warming has become difficult to ignore. While officials from both political parties are increasingly forced to confront the effects of climate change, including worsening floods, more powerful storms and greater economic damage, many remain reluctant to talk about the cause…. Stan Gimont, who as deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at HUD was responsible for the program until he left the department last summer, said the decision not to cite climate change was “a case of picking your battles…. When you go out and talk to local officials, there are some who will very actively discuss climate change and sea-level rise, and then there are those who will not,” Mr. Gimont said. “You’ve got to work with both ends of the spectrum. And I think in a lot of ways it’s best to draw a middle road on these things.”

What’s the (right) word on climate change?
Global Warming v.s. Climate Change: Why Words Matter
I invented a new word for “climate change.” Should I use it?

2. contact tracing

“Patient zero” and “Contact tracing”

In the fabric of transmission, there is no accurate way of identifying one person or one gathering as a starting point. But we can close off paths of transmission by tracing the paths of exposure – and trying to stop further spread. Understanding the concepts involved helps to clarify why “contract tracing” rather than “patient zero” is what we should be paying attention to.

3. essential worker

“Essential” – Workers, Services and Businesses, Part 1

The links at the end of this article are about how governments and organizations at all levels are engaging in the process of defining these terms – linking abstract meanings of “essential” with concrete guidance on how we can give them concrete meaning. They are defining these words, and in doing that, they are linking our abstract understandings with our way of life – defining and re-defining our way of life in practical ways – if we accept these ways into our language.

“Essential” – Workers, Services and Businesses, Part 2

States and communities are now forced to ask questions such as whether a gun store is an “essential business.” The question is being raised, but the term hasn’t yet become a focus of attention. The same situation prevails with the term “essential service”: Is congregating for worship an “essential service”? 

These are all value laden issues.  Political figures at all levels of government are attending to these questions, even if they decide to avoid them. But many communities are tackling them head-on, shaped by our diverse views of what is most important in our lives.

4. furlough

From wars to wages: how the word ‘furlough’ gained currency

Thanks to the coronavirus job retention scheme, many employees have been “furloughed” on 80% of their salary during lockdown. Presumably this obscure term is preferred to “kept on with most of their pay” simply for brevity, but where does it come from?

Originally an importation from Dutch, and spelled “vorloffe” or “fore-loofe” in the 17th century, “furlough” derives from the German military term for a soldier’s permit to be absent from duty: literally, “for leave.” A century later it began to be used in other contexts for any kind of time off (often, joshingly, from family duties). In employment terms, it has usually meant a specific period of absence with continued salary, though in the US, civilian furloughs have typically meant enforced leave without pay, as in the 2013 public-sector shutdown after Congressional budget cuts.

5. hero

Will coronavirus change how we define heroes?

Will coronavirus change how we define heroes? Heroism is the best of human nature – but does it have to be defined by one great act? Will the pandemic change who we see as heroes? Alice Eagly, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, “has argued more for a wider ‘relational heroism’, as she calls it….I think it’s inevitable that some people are given less credit because they’re seen as being heroic as part of their job. Risk to them is routine,” she says. “But it seems to me that this virus presents conditions that are anything but routine. And what we’re seeing in the use of the word ‘hero’ now is a recognition of those dangers, made all the clearer by the stark contrast between most of us staying at home while others are out there keeping things moving. Maybe now attitudes to the standing of some work, like nursing, will change.

6. patriotism

America needs to redefine patriotism

Merriam-Webster’s definition of patriotism is painfully broad. It is described as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” This widely-encompassing scope makes it hard to visualize what patriotism looks like. In the United States, enlisting in the military and honoring service members are regarded as the most common ways to show patriotism. Flying an American flag, celebrating Independence Day, or wearing a piece of clothing with the American Flag printed on it are all also considered acceptable forms of devotion. But these actions only fit patriotism on the surface level.

The Balance, a website that pertains to economics and finance, has a better description of patriotism: “Patriotism is love of country and pride in the values and ideals it represents… But patriotism is more than just an emotion.

For patriots, that means actively participating in what makes the nation successful. This includes voting, community events, and defending the nation against enemies. In a democracy, it also means having rational discussions about the issues facing the country and the best ways to solve them.” 

Rethinking Our Patriotism

7. quarantine

Not so fast: how ‘quarantine’ turned from prayer to isolation

This week the government announced that the coronavirus outbreak was “a serious and imminent threat to public health”, and gave itself new powers to force English people who threatened to spread the disease into “mandatory isolation”. This is otherwise known as “quarantine”, but why? It comes from the Latin (via French quarantaine) for 40 days, which was the length of time Jesus fasted in the wilderness, and so the period of Lent, as well as how long a widow could remain in her deceased husband’s house. In the 17th century it began to describe a precautionary period of isolation imposed on travellers to prevent them spreading disease, especially if they came from certain places.

8. racism (& anti-racism)

The way you define racism may stop you from seeing it – so what definition do you hold?

If our understanding of racism is that it’s only when people knowingly believe they are superior, then we are actively ignoring the true insidious ways it operates. It’s important to understand that racism is much more than outright thinking one race is better than the other. Most of us probably don’t go around thinking our skin is better than the colour of other people’s skin. Changing the definition of racism could bridge the current disconnect between those oppressed and those doing the oppressing. So what definition of racism do you hold and is it time to change it?

9. social distancing

Social distancing or distant socializing

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) definition is frequently cited.  And it acknowledges the potential confusion by noting that the intended meaning could also be called “physical distancing”….

Perhaps the term social distance will merge these two meanings – with the effect of making social distance compatible with social solidarity….

Another twist on the term “social distancing” is the playful inversion suggested by Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, who suggests trying “distant socializing” while practicing “social distance”!

Either way – whether “socializing at a distance” or practicing respectful and friendly “social distancing” – we’re certainly more aware now of our language. We need this awareness to appreciate our physical space – our natural environment – and our need for social solidarity.

“Social distancing”: how a 1950s phrase came to dominate 2020

10. structure (structural)

Why Do the Democrats Keep Saying ‘Structural’?

As the Democratic race for the 2020 presidential nomination heats up, a newly fashionable term has entered the political lexicon: “structural.” During Tuesday night’s debate, Elizabeth Warren said that the Democrats need to be “the party of big, structural change,” while Pete Buttigieg spoke of “structural democratic reforms.” Bernie Sanders vows on his website “to treat structural racism with the exigency it deserves,” and Cory Booker last week urged the importance of addressing “structural inequality.”

Don’t forget to vote for Wordsmyth Word of the the Year now!