Oxford Dictionaries has named “climate emergency” as its 2019 Word of the Year, choosing it from an all-environmental shortlist that also included “climate action,” “climate denial,” “eco-anxiety,” “extinction” and “flight shame.”
The Word of the Year citation is intended to highlight “a word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have a lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” Recent winners have included “toxic,” “youthquake,” “post-truth” and “vape.”
Normally, the shortlist includes a variety of different words that illustrate new trends in language usage. While the choices are often politically inflected, Katherine Connor Martin, an editor at Oxford Dictionaries, said the unusual decision to focus on climate-related terms reflected a “demonstrable escalation” in the language around climate.
“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,” she said. “It reflects it was a real preoccupation of the English-speaking world in 2019.”
The use of the term “climate emergency” increased by a hundredfold since 2018, according to data collected in the Oxford Corpus, a database containing hundreds of millions of words of written English. In fact, it was the most common compound involving “emergency,” occurring three times as often as the next most-common, “health emergency.”
In part, Ms. Martin noted, this reflects a deliberate decision by some news organizations, including The Guardian, to use “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” instead of “climate change,” to better convey the urgency of the situation.
Oxford’s choice of an all-environmental shortlist, Ms. Martin said, did not reflect a similar deliberate attention to focus people’s attention, but a reading, if a necessarily subjective one, of the lexicographic evidence.
“When we considered all the possibilities, a narrative really coalesced this year around words associated with ecological concerns,” she said.