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After a 100-fold increase in usage, Oxford Dictionaries has just declared that the word of the year for 2019 is “climate emergency”. The massive spike in the use of the term demonstrates “greater immediacy” in the conversations we’re now having about climate change.
According to the dictionary’s data, the number of times that “climate emergency” has been used within the past 12 months has soared 10,796%, earning it the deserved title of being 2019’s word of the year. Each year, Oxford Dictionaries chooses a word of the year to reflect the ethos, mood and preoccupations of the year.
Climate 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.” This greater awareness about our ecological crisis has seen the association between emergency and climate became three times more connected than “health emergency” in 2019, said Oxford. It beat the other candidates on the short list, many of which were also environmentally related, such as “plant-based”, “climate denial” and “flight shame”.
In addition to being more commonly adopted in the language used in our everyday discussions about climate change, hundreds of cities, towns and countries this year have also formally declared that we are in the middle of a “climate emergency” to better reflect the global scientific agreement that urgent immediate action must be taken to avoid catastrophes. These include Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Sydney in Australia.
Commenting on the decision, Oxford Dictionaries’ selection panel said: “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.”
Indeed, this year, we’ve seen a massive uptick in the attention focused on our degrading planet. From the spike in protests launched by groups like Extinction Rebellion and A Free Ride, to the global headlines made by students all over the world taking to the streets every Friday to strike for climate action, there is no doubt that it has become one of the most hotly debated topics of this year. And rightfully so – we have no time to lose, as report after report is reiterating the same message: action must happen now, or catastrophes will end humanity altogether. Most recently, a report by scientists at The Lancet declared that the climate crisis is “robbing” our children and future generations of their health and wellbeing.
While some critics point out that “climate emergency” is made up of two parts, linguists around the world have commonly acknowledged multi-part constructions such as “heart attack” as single words. Previous choices for the word of the year include “toxic” in 2018 and “youthquake” in 2017.
Lead image courtesy of Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images.