Oxford Dictionaries has declared the phrase “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year, after a 10,000 percent spike in usage.
Since 2004, Oxford has selected a Word of the Year from a word or phrase that has seen an upsurge of interest and reflects the ethos, mood, or preoccupations over the past year, with lasting potential for long term cultural significance.
Oxford defines “climate emergency” as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”
The phrase“climate emergency” was once relatively obscure, but after a huge spike in its usage this year, it has become one of the most prominent expressions among English speakers. According to a statement published by their panel, “In 2018, climate did not feature in the top words typically used to modify emergency, instead the top types of emergencies people wrote about were health, hospital, and family emergencies. But with climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency to the global level.”
This existential threat surpassed all other “emergencies” in writing by a “huge margin” despite not even making the list in 2018. Even other variations of the same concept, exhorting attention to the health of our native planet, were eclipsed by the relative urgency of the phrase.
The phrases “climate crisis” and “climate action” also made Oxford’s Word of the Year 2019 shortlist.
Katherine Connor Martin, an editor at Oxford Dictionaries, told the New York Times, “When we were looking through the evidence, it was just clear that issues relating to the climate were running through all the different lexical items we were working with. It reflects it was a real preoccupation of the English-speaking world in 2019.”
Usage of the phrase CLIMATE EMERGENCY increased steeply over the course of 2019, and by September it was more than 100 times as common as it had been the previous year. pic.twitter.com/w40CIcNMgy
— Oxford Languages (@OxLanguages) November 21, 2019
This data is significant because it indicates a growing shift in people’s language choice in 2019, a conscious intensification that challenges accepted language use to reframe discussion of ‘the defining issue of our time’ with a new gravity and greater immediacy.
Media outlets like the Guardian have altered their language to “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world,” asserting that “the urgency of climate crisis needed robust new language to describe it.” The New York Times, among others, soon took a similar stance.
Oxford Dictionaries did, however, note that the term is contentious, saying some people still “harbour concerns over the language choice,” and “some in the scientific community question the validity of climate emergency as an appropriate term at all.” In fact, it may very well be the divisive nature of the argument that has helped to fuel its proliferation.
The 2018 Word of the Year selection was “toxic,” and 2017 saw the dominance of “youthquake.”