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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

How to Describe the Disaster?

Air Date: Week of

The BP oil disaster is a failure of technology and lexicology. The words that we use to describe the Gulf of Mexico disaster don’t begin to define the scope of the catastrophe. Is it a spill? A gusher? Host Jeff Young tracks the flow of words with Paul Payak from the Global Language Monitor.


YOUNG: Millions - maybe billions - of words have been written about BP’s runaway oil well. Yet words still fail us—we still lack the right term for what’s happening in the Gulf. So we turn to Paul JJ Payack for guidance. He’s President of the Global Language Monitor in Austin, Texas, where he tracks changes in the language, including the words most often used to describe the oil in the Gulf.

PAYAK: Overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, the top word is oil spill, which is sort of a disappointment. Many times when you have new events in a language, the language leads the event. You can actually… there are new words that pop up in profusion.

YOUNG: Uh huh.

PAYAK: And, in this case, we haven’t seen that many new words. What we’ve seen is the old way to describe an oil spill. The Exxon Valdez has a crash, spills the oil out, and that’s a spill. But this is different; this is a lot different than a spill.

YOUNG: Because a spill connotes a fixed amount that spilled from a container into where you don’t want it. That’s not what’s happening here at all.

PAYAK: In our case, we’re not talking about a spill, we’re talking about an oil field that’s estimated at 3, 4, 5 billion barrels erupting, but we still refer to it as a spill.

YOUNG: What other words are people trying out, here?

PAYAK: Ok, they’re trying out things like a disaster, the gulf oil spill disaster. Another one that’s pretty high up is Valdez, from the Exxon Valdez, okay. And then we have blowout, and that’s been used in the oil industry for probably 100 years now. It’s giving lots of rise to people talking about an apocalypse, and things of that nature.

YOUNG: I’ve come across the terms oilpacolypse and oilmageddon.

PAYAK: Yeah, and again, that’s like the snowpocalypse in Washington DC, right, snowmageddon. That was very widely adopted by the media, so we’re looking for things like that, we’re looking for those clever formations but they haven’t really taken hold. Other words that people are using are gusher, plume, another one that we found in the foreign press was torrent, a torrent of oil.

YOUNG: Torrent, that’s good because it’s pouring forth, yeah. But again, spill is used 1000 times more than torrent is used. Gusher is a pretty good one. It’s accurate, I think. However, when you think of a gusher, you think that’s a good thing. Hey, we struck it rich! We hit a gusher!

PAYAK: Right. And you always have to explain that the gusher isn’t necessarily good. When people are looking at a gusher, all that oil, and yeah as it’s been said, is being wasted.

YOUNG: The incident, however, is giving us a lot of new and interesting terms. Top kill, junk shot, things like that. What are you learning from tracking that kind of language that’s emerging?

PAYAK: That’s very interesting. Top hat was number one, and then blow out, and then top kill, and then torrent as a technical term. Now number 5 is really interesting to us. Macondo blowout.

YOUNG: Macondo. Why is Macondo being used with this BP incident?

PAYAK: Well, first of all it’s the Macondo field. When you buy a track, you name it, and evidently this was named the Macondo track. Now, it’s from a book “100 Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and that is a book, that you could look at it, it’s about a faded town, some may say cursed…

YOUNG: Yeah, Macondo gets wiped away at the end of the book.

PAYAK: It gets wiped away, and during the multiple generations that you read about, there is some happiness and joy, but there is this insurmountable list of things that need to be overcome, horrendous things. Let me read from the end of the book. “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

YOUNG: Gabriel Garcia Marquez could have been writing about the Gulf today- it’s amazing!

PAYAK: Certainly sounds that way. Certainly sounds to reverberate with this whole end of “100 Years of Solitude,” and the summation of what’s going on.

YOUNG: Macondo, wow. Thanks very much.

PAYAK: Ok, talk to you later. Thanks a lot.

YOUNG: Back tag: - Paul JJ Payack is chief word analyst with the Global Language Monitor. Don’t you be speechless - let us know what word or phrase you think best describes the oil mess in the Gulf. Send your words our way - to our Facebook page at PRI’s Living on Earth - or comments at loe.org – or our listener line at 800-218-9988.



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