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The word

Rig talk

What the oil spill did to language

By Jan Freeman
August 15, 2010

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As we move on (fingers crossed) into the cleanup-and-restoration stage of the BP oil well disaster, maybe it’s time to cap off a few of the usage debates that bubbled up along with the gusher of crude.

I’m not talking about the truly arcane drilling lingo — “junk shot,” “top hat,” “static kill” — that has come and gone in the past several months. These terms range from obvious to mysterious, but so far, none seem to be seeping into our everyday vocabulary. (The “static” in “static kill,” by the way, refers to achieving stasis, or equilibrium, between the pressure of the oil and the weight of the drilling mud holding it back.)

No, the complaints I noticed were about the (possible) misuse of ordinary words. Siphon, for instance: Back in June, when a containment cap was allowing BP to pipe some of the spewing oil onto ships, newspapers around the world suddenly began to call that process “siphoning.” “Am I the only person wondering whether the journalists and other writers discussing the Gulf oil spill actually know what the word siphon means?” asked Robert Abruzzo of Burlington in an e-mail. “To begin with, a siphon flows down.”

No, he wasn’t the only one wondering; a blogger at Daily Kos also pointed out that to siphon is technically “to cause a liquid to move from a higher level to a lower one, with an intermediate higher point, by action of gravity.” And no matter how the escaping oil was corralled onto ships, it didn’t end up at a lower point.

But this casual use of siphon is not new. Figurative senses of siphon have been common for at least 70 years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its earliest example, dated 1940, comes from Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”: “All the fervor of which they were still capable was siphoned off into the revolutionary army.” Siphoning can also be a shady activity, as in “siphoning off funds meant for charity.”

Nobody would object to those uses. It’s only when siphon is further extended — to mean “pump, suck up, or otherwise divert something liquid” — that the metaphorical meaning collides with the technical one, setting off alarms in scientifically oriented brains.

This development, my cursory survey suggests, may indeed be newish — that is, only a few decades old. Searching Google News for the phrase “siphon up” — a clue to loose usage, since true siphoning brings liquid to a lower level, not “up” — I found only a handful of examples before the mid-1970s. Then comes a flurry of “siphoning up” — “The Indians say it will siphon up their water without bringing any long-term benefits to the Navahos,” wrote columnist Jack Anderson in 1975 — and this siphon usage has been spreading ever since.

And yet, I have found no protests from the language sticklers who bemoan the corruption of other technical terms, like beg the question and quantum leap. For most of us, it seems, the similarity between siphoning and other ways of diverting, pumping, and sucking up fluids far outweighs the difference in the physics of the process. That’s not even remotely a corruption; it’s just language doing its usual metaphorical thing.

Another small faction of purists piped up when BP said it would cap the well, once the flow was stanched, with a cement plug. These were members of the “no-it’s-concrete” camp, always ready to remind us that cement is just one ingredient in the mix that produces concrete. But they spoke too soon. If you want details, Google Books can tell you all about the American Petroleum Institute’s approved formulations for oil-well cements, but trust me: This time, it really is cement.

Probably the most furious debate flared over naming the event: spill, leak, gusher? A lot of folks objected to spill, some because it wasn’t a limited amount leaking from a tanker, others because the word seemed too mild for such a catastrophe. But as Ben Zimmer, The New York Times language columnist, noted in a radio interview, the compact spill was destined to get lots of use in headlines (and leak, to most of us, sounds even less serious). Public opinion might have coalesced around an alternative — blowout, geyser, rupture — but it didn’t; instead, we seem to have stretched the meaning of the six-decade-old term oil spill to cover spewing pipes as well as leaky ships.

Then there was the controversy that never quite got its head above water, over the ubiquitous description of the BP site as a “busted well.” “They should have used ‘broken,’ ” several commenters at MSNBC.com agreed. But busted, though slangy, is not actually forbidden, and even conservative news outlets went with “busted well.” Maybe reporters hoped that busted, with its criminal-cowboy-macho connotations, would help offset the wimpiness of oil spill. Or maybe, like the rest of us, they just plain enjoy slinging slang.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).