My almost-five-year-old daughter knocked over her glass of milk the other night at dinner. The result? A small puddle of milk on and under our kitchen table otherwise known as spilled milk. My wife's and my reactions? "Oops. You spilled your milk. Oh well, accidents happen. Let's clean it up." With nothing more than a few rags, the spill was "contained" and no damage to our home occurred. As the saying goes, not worth crying over spilled milk.
Now compare my daughter's milk spill to the massive economic and environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico known as the BP oil "spill." Almost two months after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, oil is still pouring out of the still uncapped well. Do you notice the absurdity here? Unlike the milk spill, this is one spill worth crying over. And our national reaction? Not the same as that over the spilled milk. Definitely not "Oh well, accidents happen." How about shock, anger, frustration, and despair?
As someone whose work is based on the use -- and power -- of words, I have been amazed and appalled at the ongoing use of the word spill to describe what is, in reality, the antithesis of a spill as we normally think of it. What word better describes the yet-to-be-halted flow of millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf waters that support marine life, the fishing industry, and tourism? How about gusher, torrent, outpouring, spewing, or deluge for starters.
I've asked a number of people about this distinction and several have said, "who cares what word is used, it's simply semantics." But whenever I hear that rationalization I say that the difference is not just semantic because words represent substance and meaning. Words shape our perceptions of the world and how we think about and react to the world. And to call what happened a spill is to trivialize it and fail to accurately describe the disaster that it clearly is. That minimization may also reduce the severity of how we interpret it. And for something of this scale, diminishing this tragedy will only interfere with our efforts to respond to it.
What should we call what is happening in the Gulf? Disaster, tragedy, catastrophe, devastation, cataclysm? I don't think there is a word that does it justice. Perhaps we need to come up with a new word, maybe a portmanteau. Mmmm... let's see. How about Oilgate or Fuelishness (no political innuendo intended)? Okay, I admit that I can't come up with anything off the top of my head. Can you do better?
But my main point is this: Please, stop calling it a spill!
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