Oxford Dictionaries Named “Climate Emergency” Its 2019 Word of The Year

Wednesday was a day of celebration for climate activists and supporters worldwide as Oxford Dictionaries named “climate emergency” its 2019 word of the year. The declaration came after the term witnessed a 100-times increase in its usage, which, according to Oxford, demonstrated a “greater immediacy,” especially in the way we discuss climate.

As per the definition of Oxford, a climate emergency is “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

In the Oxford shortlisting process, the word “climate emergency” outperformed other climate-related words such as “climate crisis,” “climate action,” and “climate denial,” among others.

“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,” Katherine Connor Martin, an editor at Oxford Dictionaries, told The New York Times when asked about Oxford Dictionaries’ decision. “It reflects it was a real preoccupation of the English-speaking world in 2019.”

As per Oxford’s official data, climate emergency usage has “increased steeply” all through the year, and “by September it was more than 100 times as common as it had been the previous year.” The exact increase was 10.796%.

The word “climate emergency” was the most commonly used term in 2019, followed by “health emergency,” which stood in second place.

While linking it to the Times report on the announcement of Oxford, meteorologist and science writer Eric Holthaus tweeted, “We are in a climate emergency.”

Genevieve Guenther, the founder-director of digital activist group End Climate Silence, also shared the Times report on Twitter writing, “Damn right.”

A local English chapter of the global Extinction Rebellion movement did acknowledge the spike in the usage of the term in April, when XR activists held a round of demonstrations, marches, and peaceful civil disobedience across the world to promote the three key demands of the movement, including that which urged governments to declare an ecological and climate emergency.

During 2019 cities, towns, and also countries across the world have also declared “climate emergencies,” including Scotland in April, the UK parliament in May, Canada, France, and Sydney in Australia.

Oxford pointed out that it was a reflective choice that did not only consider the increasing climate awareness, but the primary focus was on the specific language we normally use to talk about climate. It also found that the word’s soaring usage also reflected a conscious way of emphasizing the language of immediacy and urgency by the people.

“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,” the Oxford selection panel mentioned.

“But with climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency to the global level.”

However, some parties protested Oxford’s decision saying “climate emergency” consists of two words. For those, the dictionary clarified that there can be two parts in single words. Some common examples are “heart attack,” “man-of-war,” or the 2017 American Dialect Society word of the year “fake news,” which are accepted by linguists worldwide.

The objective behind choosing Oxford’s word of the year is to “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year” so that it should have “lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

“In 2019, climate emergency surpassed all of those other types of emergency to become the most written about emergency by a huge margin, with over three times the usage frequency of health, the second-ranking word,” Oxford said.

Earlier in May, the Guardian updated its style guide in order to elucidate that “climate emergency” or “global heating” would be preferred to “climate change” or “global warming” (despite the fact that the original terms are nor overruled) – thereby reflecting the scientific consensus that this indeed was “ a catastrophe for humanity” in a better way.

Supporters of Oxford’s word of the year noted that the announcement came two weeks after Collins Dictionary named “climate strike” its 2019 word of the year.

According to the explanations of the Collins website, climate strike is “a form of protest that took off just over one year ago with the actions of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg and which has grown to become a worldwide movement.”

The website also said the term “was first registered in November 2015 when the first event to be so named took place to coincide with the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, but it is over the last year that ‘climate strikes’ have spread and become a frequent reality in many of the world’s largest cities.” It added that “Collins’ lexicographers observed a 100-fold increase in its usage in 2019.”

Oxford Dictionaries’ previous choices for the word of the year include “toxic” in 2018 and “youthquake” in 2017.

Arindom Ghosh

A professional writer, blogger, copywriter, and a member of the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors, New York. He has been part of many reputed domestic and global online magazines and publications. An avid reader and a nature lover by heart, when he is not working, he is probably exploring the secrets of life.