|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.
PAYACK: 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.
PAYACK: 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.
PAYACK: 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.