On Words: 'Global Warming' Meets Astrology

Crossposted with www.TheGreenGrok.com.

For Friday a little, light, linguistics lesson.

Breaking from TheGreenGrok formula of sharp, cutting-edge pieces on the environment, let's discuss words -- let us surreptitiously slip into the world of the etymologist for a few minutes.

I suspect that most people think of etymologists as a rather rigid lot, insisting on universal obeisance to some outmoded concept of proper English. Someone like Henry Higgins. But is that really the case? Isn't English a living language that is continuously evolving?

Take the word media. Traditionally a plural word with Latin roots, media originally referred to more than one medium or channel of communication (newspaper, radio, TV). But, as we all know, "the media" is now also a singular collective noun that's used to refer to the press -- the purveyors of news that's fit to print, broadcast and now even blog about (with "fit" encompassing a wide range of interpretation). That's what you call a living language.

Another sign of the dynamism of our language is the alacrity with which neologisms (how's that for a word!) appear on the scene these days. While not quite up to the neologisitic prowess of a certain wordsmith of the Elizabethan Age, a noted U.S. statesperson has gotten a good deal of notoriety for her contribution to the English language. While speaking of the "power" in "words" on July 14th of this year, the spokesperson in question in a spontaneous mash-up single-handedly coined the word refudiate while presumably reaching for "refute" or "repudiate." Impressively, the word is now ranked number four for new words of 2010 by a group of self-appointed purveyors of the neologistic world.

Which brings us to global warming -- I know, this post is supposed to be about words and it is; just bear with me. As you may have guessed, said spokesperson who coined "refudiate" has been quite busy over the past couple of years refudiating global warming, chalking it up to "snake oil," referring to it as "agenda-driven science," and cautioning against "overreaction," to cite a few colorful examples. And she is by no means alone -- there is a whole cadre of like-minded refudiaters out there who are falling over themselves to refudiate global warming. And guess what one of their key strategies entails? Believe it or not, it involves words -- an etymological attack.

Remember Frank Luntz? He's the Republican strategist who became infamous among environmentalists when he advised conservatives in a very long memo to tweak certain language like so:

"'Climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming.' ... While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge" (p. 142)."

Interestingly, back in the day when I was at Environmental Defense Fund, I was told by Republican staffers to always use the phrase "climate change" instead of "global warming" when talking to their bosses. "He gets upset when he hears the words 'global warming,'" I was once advised. "Hey, no prob," I replied. A rose is a rose is a rose, right?

But even though the refudiaters got me to use climate change, they still have their work cut out for them. As reported by CNN, the top three words of the decade are 9/11, Obama, and ... you guessed it, global warming. Note that is "global warming" and not "climate change." And even though Congresswoman-elect -- and, no doubt, refudiater -- Kristi Noem (SD-R) voted for a resolution (which passed in the South Dakota House) declaring that "astrological ... dynamics ... can effect world weather," I am pleased to report that "astrological dynamics" did not make the Top Ten list for the year or the decade.

I find all this incredibly interesting and I hope you do too. There is just one thing that bothers me -- global warming is not a word; it is two. How can it make the list of top words if it isn't technically a word but rather a phrase, a term? I guess that's just another example of the wild and unpredictable world of the etymologist.

So, okay, let's get really creative. If two words can be counted as one, I propose that next year's Word of the Year be "refudiater refudiater." Sometimes two wrongs actually do make a right.