Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019

Part I of The Politics of “Climate Emergency”

(in three parts)

In 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary, better known to most by its acronym OED, commenced the practice of choosing a word or phrase that through “usage evidence” reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year,” and is likely to “have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”. The Dictionary’s choice of the word of the Year 2016 was simply chilling:  post-truth. Every religion has posed the question:  is there life after death? A new question has come to the fore in our times: is there life after truth—and what kind of life? Post-truth:  post-chronology:  let us keep in mind that post as a noun also signifies pillar, and that “the noblest minds”—a quaint, even archaic, phrase to some—have sought to make truth the pillar that steadies them as they sojourn through life.  The noun “post” has still another meaning, signifying “station”, as in our “station” in life.  Donald J. Trump had, before the year 2016 was brought to a close, just been elected President of the US, and whatever did not agree with him then—and consider the precipitous decline since, three years later—was already being branded as “fake news”. But OED’s choice pointed to the fact, even if those who exercised this choice did not fully realize the implications of their decision-making, that we are living in near totalitarian times, even as more societies continue to display the necessary outward accoutrements of what is called ‘democracy’. Many have been the definitions that have been put forward to explain totalitarianism, a political ideology that necessitates the massive and total accumulation of power and a rigid intolerance for dissent, but the essence of it is a system where it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood.


For 2019, OED’s word, more a phrase, is “climate emergency.”  “Democratic Totalitarianism” might have been a better choice for 2019, but I suspect that it is likely to be a very good candidate in the years ahead.  For all I know, had the Covid-19 outbreak happened somewhat earlier than December 31, the top candidate might have been “coronavirus”.  For the present, we are stuck with OED’s “climate emergency”. It augurs something not less petrifying than post-truth:  the prophets of doom, who have been warning of the deleterious effects of global warning, will have some reason to congratulate themselves.  But first we have to get past the word “emergency” which, as the lexicographers at OED perforce know but seem loathe to acknowledge, is rather anodyne if not outright banal.  That might appear odd to some readers, for surely an emergency is nothing but an emergency?  But surely they must know, for instance, that emergency is used most often in apposition with “family” and “medical”.  The literate will recall that famous opening line from Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Every family known to the present writer has been in some emergency or the other and many families are so dysfunctional that they are best described as being in a perpetual state of emergency.  The more cynically minded commentator might quite reasonably even be inclined to view the bizarre institution of the family as indicative of why humankind itself appears as something of an emergency. As for “medical emergency”, the United States furnishes ample evidence of why the word “emergency” is abused as a matter of course.  People land up in emergency rooms routinely since, at least in the US, the chances of being randomly shot at are rather high; but they also land up in the emergency room for no better reason than a coughing fit, mild leg pain, or some other mundane or temporary disability which would scarcely even call for intervention in many other cultures.


A patient being rushed to ER–a stock image of Hollywood and Bollywood films alike, too.  Photo credit: VM/ISTOCK.COM.  Source:

One might have thought that “climate crisis” was equally a candidate for the OED word or phrase of the year and it appears to have had more currency than “climate emergency” the last few years. The statistical evidence from usage aside, the lexicographers, writers, and editors who are called upon to choose from all the words that have been nominated for the honor might however have balked, and rightly so, at the word “crisis”. Talk of “crisis” is endemic in modernity; there is always this or that crisis.  It is not only that crisis jargon is often grating to the sensibility.  The objection to it is more fundamental:  as Walter Benjamin had observed, the thinking person is always in a state of crisis. What is there that would not call forth the sense of crisis in the person who feels powerless to prevent the everyday oppression of the poor, who has to watch in silent rage the murder and permissive deaths of dissenters and supposed enemies of the state, who is witness to rank misogyny at every turn, or who can only look upon in anguish at the ever increasing numbers of those around the world who are fleeing war, genocidal attacks, hunger, or sheer economic misery?  How can a thinking person not be in crisis considering that the misfortunes of a fictional character move a reader to tears but leave the same reader cold at the news of the neighbor’s death?  The crisis is not always induced because one is constantly placed at the ethical crossroads, and there is (after Robert Frost) the road not taken:  but thinking is demanding, painful, and all the more difficult to bear in these shrill times given its solitary nature.


A tidewater glacier melting in southeast Greenland in the summer of 2018.  Photo copyright: ERIC RIGNOT.

What, then, are we to make of the “climate emergency” which the most authoritative dictionary of the world’s most global—though not most widely spoken—language has pronounced is upon us and is perhaps poised to bring untold suffering on millions and more likely billions of people in the very near future?  What is the overwhelming and unassailable evidence that humanity is at the brink of a catastrophe?  Global emissions increased eighteen-fold from around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 1900 to 36 billion tons in 2015, and after stabilizing in 2015-17 they have risen again. The four warmest years on record are the four previous years, 2015-2018.  The sea level not only continues to rise, but has risen at a much faster pace than anticipated by scientists in recent years. In 2019 alone, Greenland suffered net ice loss of 350 billion tons, about 20% more than the average of the last several years, while the Himalayas, which are home to the world’s third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world after the Antarctica and the Arctic, have suffered a loss of 25% of glacial ice in the last 40 years.  As a consequence, the rise in the global sea level is just about one-fifth of an inch every year.  The likelihood is that within two generations, some places—the Maldives, Houston, Dhaka, to name only three likely candidates—may go under water. The very thought that global metropolises with staggeringly large populations, such as Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok, could be submerged seems outlandish. Add another generation, and, as the climate change debunkers would say, a dose of sentimentality, and it is very likely that the glaciers will merit mention in textbooks as something akin to rare endangered species.  Glacier melt is so colossal a problem that it might warrant inclusion as the word of the year before too long.

(to be continued)

2 thoughts on “Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019

  1. Just because India and Indians have a high tolerance for dysfunction does not mean the word “emergency” is abused in the USA.Also most shootings are black on black shootings.


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