Classroom Activities: Tyche, Giant Hidden Planet, needs its own verb

The Tyche (Fortune) of Antioch. Marble, Roman ...
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Last week was the 81st anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, which you may know, is no longer considered a planet.  In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided on new criteria for what should be considered a planet, and Pluto didn’t make the cut.

Pluto’s demotion from planetary status upset many, and as a result a new verb emerged.  As LanguageLog covered, to pluto came to mean:

“to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.”

And, while it lost its status as a planet, it gained notoriety for its verb.  To Pluto won the oldest and most important Word of the Year (WOTY) vote at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society (ADS).

Five years later, and a new planet, Tyche, is on the horizon.  I’m sure this is a relief to many elementary school teachers, who lost their mnemonic device for teaching the planets.  “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” just wasn’t the same when Pluto was removed from the mix.  (For those of you who didn’t learn the mnemonic, it helps you remember the order of the planets:  Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars….)  Now we just have to figure out something that starts with “T.”

Creating a mnemonic is probably already a n activity among many elementary school teachers.  However, Tyche’s “possible planet status” allows another kind of  linguistic activity that’s sure to amuse many of your younger students (and a few of the geeky older ones).  To start with, you could ask your students why “plutoed” became a verb?  What does that tell us about the social role of language?  

Next, you could ask students what kind of verb “to tyche” might be if this new discovery influenced people to create such a verb.   Have them study what’s actually happening as this science emerges.  Astronomers are anxiously waiting to see whether or not Tyche, itself, emerges out of the Oort Cloud in the outermost part of our solar system.  If it does, they’ll analyze data to determine whether it meets the definition of a planet.  And, there’s already some concern that it might not–since at least a few scientists think it might have been formed in another solar system and then been sucked in to our own sun’s orbit.  

If something that has been plutoed has been demoted, what would this new verb “to tyche” mean? How might this meaning change as scientists get new data about Tyche?

What other contexts could students use this verb in?  Would it have positive or negative connotations?  

How would students decide to inflect it for tense, aspect, voice, and agreement?  Would these patterns reflect regular English patterns, or would the fact that Tyche is a loan word (from Greek) affect their decisions? 

Would “to tyche” be transitive or intransitive?  How would that compare to “to pluto”?  Who would typically be the subject (or doer) of this verb?  

Tyche, Giant Hidden Planet, May Exist In Our Solar System.

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About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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