‘Climate Emergency’ Is Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year

Climate change activists, both young and old, take part in the international Strike for Climate protest in Los Angeles, California on May 24, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Oxford Dictionaries has declared the phrase “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year, after a 10,000 percent spike in usage.

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.” In 2019, usage of the term skyrocketed to the top of public discourse. 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. According to Oxford Dictionaries:

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.” It is presently unclear where language will trend during 2020, but as an election year, there will be plenty of choices.

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