What Should We Call the Oil Spill?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

For more than two months, we've tracked news and developments of the Gulf oil spill. But is it technically a "spill?" The broken pipe is spilling (or gushing, or spewing, or leaking) as many as 30,000 to 60,000 gallons of oil a day. Is it time for some new terminology? What would you call the oil spill, and why?

Ben Zimmer joins us; he writes the On Language column for The New York Times. People are passionate about the language we're using to define the oil catastrophe (from "oil-apocalypse" to "runaway oil"). Zimmer says that we're searching for a term that helps embody the magnitude of the Gulf spill. He looks at historical connotations behind some of the words in use like "gusher" and "rupture," as well as at the language that was used to describe the Ixtoc blowout in the Gulf of Mexico 20 years ago to see if it can help put these words in perspective.


Ben Zimmer

Comments [24]

Manumission1 from NYC

"Oilastophy" or "oilblob."

See related issue at www.manumission1.vox.com.

Jun. 25 2010 07:15 PM
a g from n j

gulf war in 'da hood.

gulf war numero dos

gaia strikes back

revenge of planet earth

chenny spills his bile [haliburton honey]

Jun. 25 2010 10:35 AM
LM Denison from Glen Cove NY

How about Corporate Diarrhea?

Jun. 24 2010 06:30 PM
Shirley from New York, NY

Acute crude emesis

Jun. 24 2010 04:44 PM
Lee from Ohio

"The Black Death", considering the color of the oil and since it's like a plague to the region

Jun. 24 2010 04:40 PM
Claude Adrian Caponnetto from Milan, Italy

How about 'Godzilla in the Gulf'. It's dark, it comes from the deep and murky prehistory of our planet etc. etc. It's horrible!

Jun. 24 2010 03:01 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

BP would call it a "trickle," or a "leak," as I'm sure their attorneys will in the inevitable lawsuits seeking to hold them liable for the damage and injury they have caused.

Don't call it a spill, because that sounds small. Don't call it an "accident," either, because that term has a legal definition arising from liability insurance policies. "Accident" usually means something not intended from the standpoint of the insured. But if the person (or corporation) acted with recklessness in such a way that made it likely this would occur, that's not really an "accident." If somebody drives drunk and hits someone, it's an "accident" in the sense that they did not intend to hit the other person. But by getting in a car drunk, they acted in reckless disregard of the likelihood they would hit someone, so it's not really an "accident."

We should call it an "explosion" of oil, or the "gushing" oil. We could using the word "raging," too, as in "the raging explosion of oil," or "the oil gushing into the Gulf in a raging manner."

Jun. 24 2010 01:03 PM

Man-Made Disaster

Jun. 24 2010 11:39 AM
Robert C. from Manhattan

My vote goes to Gusher. Spill implies a finate amount of oil was spilled. We dont know how much oil has gushed out of the ocean floor, and we dont know when it will stop. Its not a spill.

Its not a natural disaster either. In this regard, I'd call it criminal corporate environmental disaster. That's what it is, and that's where the facts are going to go...

Jun. 24 2010 09:27 AM
Diana Manister from Staten Island

How about "oilcano"?

Jun. 24 2010 09:06 AM
Andy from NYC

Blow Out Preventer....Not! So we should call it a: "B.O.P Not"

Jun. 23 2010 04:07 PM
Bill Porter from New York City

It should be reffered to as an "Industrial Disaster", there's nothing "Natural" about it!

Jun. 23 2010 02:32 PM
Joan from Garrison, NY

"Rhage" (Greek: violent, uncontrolled burst)

(BP) "Oil Monster"

Jun. 23 2010 11:16 AM
Carmen from OKC

I will call it "Fatal Spew" or "Eco-Tragedy"

Jun. 23 2010 11:06 AM
Heather Cole

A nice, one-syllable, armageddon-ish sounding word: spew

Jun. 23 2010 09:45 AM
Jan Hamilton from Lake Worth, FL

For a short word, how about creating a new use of the word "spew" as in "the gulf oil spew"? With regard to words already in use, why not oil disaster or fiasco?

Jun. 23 2010 09:43 AM
Jed Clampett from NYC

"And up from the ground come a bubblin' crude"
Can we call it Texas Tea? Black Gold?

3 miles down. All that pressure - we've poke a tightly squeezed water balloon with a pin. Oil gushes even above sea level, doesn't it? I'm no Halliburton geologist or nothing.

Jun. 23 2010 09:31 AM
Jane Steele

If I had to give a name to the cause of the oil spill in the Gulf I would have to go with
Diabolic Fountain

Jun. 23 2010 09:30 AM
Tom from Brooklyn

How about "BP Corporate Synergy"?

Jun. 23 2010 09:26 AM
jim thompson from fort mill,sc

This is BP's wretched mass of oozing sludge.

Jun. 23 2010 09:24 AM

I call it a corporate disaster on my blog site. It is not a spill because the oil was not accidentally tipped over. This is the result of corporations not taking the time to use precaution and having a plan to implement immediately in case the operation went wrong.

Jun. 23 2010 08:33 AM
William Yotive from Upper West Side, NY

Instead of calling it the oil spill we should call it the Fountain of Spoil.

Jun. 23 2010 08:02 AM
Diana Howard

The "spill" seems more like an oil hemorrhage to me as it reminds me of uncontrollable and fatal bleeding.

Jun. 22 2010 11:33 PM

I've always thought of it as the Gusher in the Gulf. If I was in the news media that's what I would call it. I assumed BP's PR came up with the brilliant choice of "The Spill"

Jun. 22 2010 06:47 PM

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