This year marked a seismic shift in the way we talk about the climate, with a meteoric rise in a wide range of phrases that express a growing sense of gravity and urgency.
Climate emergency is the word of 2019, according to Oxford Dictionaries. Sure, strictly speaking, it’s a phrase, not a word — but it’s nonetheless this year’s defining term.
Indeed, the Oxford linguists chose it not just because it has rapidly risen in popularity from last year’s ‘relative obscurity’ — by September 2019, it was more than a hundred times more common than it had been just twelve months earlier — but also because it captures ‘the demonstrable escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate’.
A change in media and political expression has played a significant part in making the phrase part of everyday discourse. In particular, the Oxford Dictionaries mention Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s early reference to a ‘climate emergency’ in April 2019 and The Guardian’s editorial decision, in May, to switch to describing global warming as a ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ on the grounds that ‘the phrase “climate change” sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity,’ as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, stated at the time.
This sense of imminent disaster has really penetrated our vocabulary this year. It is telling that most of the words in the 2019 Oxford shortlist had to do with climate in some way or another, either directly — with terms such as ‘climate action’, ‘climate crisis’, or ‘climate denial’, as well as, of course, ‘climate emergency’ — or indirectly, with words such as ‘eco-anxiety’, ‘ecocide’, ‘plant-based’, ‘net-zero’ and the imported term ‘flight shame’.
Defined as ‘A reluctance to travel by air, or discomfort at doing so, because of the damaging emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants by aircraft,’ it is a translation of the Swedish flygskam and owes much of its popularity to teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, who hails from the Scandinavian country.
But the diffusion of ‘climate emergency’ also signals a shift in the way we conceive the word ‘emergency’, which had been previously associated primarily with the personal sphere, in phrases such as ‘family’ or ‘health’ emergency, or as an official acknowledgement of ‘an acute situation at a jurisdictional level’ (as in ‘state of emergency’). But all these have been vastly surpassed by — pardon the pun — the sudden emergence of ‘climate emergency’ in our everyday language. Now used more than three times more frequently than its ‘health’ equivalent, it shows that we are starting to think of ’emergency’ as a situation of danger at global level.
Overall, write the Oxford linguists, this shift in people’s word choices indicates ‘a conscious intensification that challenges accepted language use to re-frame discussion of “the defining issue of our time”, with a new gravity and greater immediacy.’
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