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“Climate emergency” is the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen “climate emergency” as 2019’s Word of the Year because of its effectiveness in communicating a sense of urgency in the fight against global warming.

According to the Oxford English Dictionaryclimate emergency is defined 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 term has been declared Word of the Year, perfectly reflecting pressing global concerns about our climate.

Why climate emergency is Word of the Year

The announcement on the Oxford Dictionaries website states that this title refers to a “word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”.

According to data collected by the Oxford English Corpus, a database containing billions of words in this language, the use of the term climate emergency increased by a factor of one hundred in a single year. It went from almost never being used to being among the most frequent.

Statistically speaking, this analysis demonstrates that the word “emergency” is being used in a new way, because up to 2018 it was barely ever associated with “climate“.

climate emergency oxford dictionary word of the year 2019
Use of the term “climate emergency” increased one-hundredfold in a single year © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why the choice of a climate-related word

“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,” explains Katherine Connor Martin, editor at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The commission in charge of choosing the word also considered other climate-related terms, such as climate crisis, climate action, climate denial, solastalgia, ecocide and extinction.

climate emergency oxford dictionary word of the year 2019
The choice of “climate emergency” as Word of the Year highlights the growing debate on the issue of climate © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A linguistic change reflected in the media

The fact that the climate emergency has received more attention in 2019 than perhaps ever before is indisputable. Since Swedish activist Greta Thunberg first inspired the student movement for the climate in August 2018, it has rightfully made its way onto the global stage.

The point, however, is also how it has been discussed. The OED’s choice, in fact, is the latest addition to a series of lexical changes that have occurred at different levels. The Collins English Dictionary chose climate strike as its word of 2019 for similar reasons, in particular related to an increase in its use.

climate emergency
The climate emergency has received a lot of attention in 2019. For this reason, it was nominated Word of the Year © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s no accident that many media outlets have chosen to adopt a new lexicon in an attempt to better-represent the urgent need for concrete action to fight global warming. The Guardian, for example, has chosen to adopt the terms “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” instead of “climate change”.

When discussing communication in relation to the environment, our choice of words is extremely important. This issue is seemingly intangible and certainly complex, and often hard to communicate. For this reason, the language we choose to use reveals its importance.

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