Climate emergency is Oxford word of the year 2019

Climate Emergency is 2019 Oxford Dictionary word of the year

The 2019 Oxford Word of the Year is CLIMATE EMERGENCY.

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, says Oxford Dictionary.

The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression that is said to show, through usage evidence, a reflection of the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and is likely to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.

This year, heightened public awareness of climate science and the implications for communities around the world has generated discussion of ‘the defining issue of our time’, according to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres.

But it is not only this upsurge in conversation that caught the attention of the Oxford Dictionary. Their research revealed an escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate.

The data

Analysis of language data collected in the Oxford Corpus showed the rapid rise of climate emergency from relative obscurity to one of the most prominent – and prominently debated – terms of 2019. Usage of the phrase climate emergency increased steeply over the course of 2019, and by September it was more than 100 times as common as it had been the previous year.

The word climate has been central to 2019 overall, and features in a number of prominent phrases, but climate emergency stands out. “Statistically speaking, this represents a new trend in the use of the word emergency,” says Oxford Dictionaries.

Previously, the top types of emergencies people wrote about were health, hospital, and family emergencies, explains the organisation. These suggest acute situations of danger at a very personal level, often relating to the health of an individual. Emergency also frequently occurs, as in the phrase state  of emergency to indicate a legal declaration of an acute situation at a jurisdictional level. But with climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency to the global level, transcending these more typical uses.

With climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency [from the personal] to the global level, transcending these more typical uses.

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 emergency word.

This data shows a growing shift in people’s language choice in 2019 – a conscious intensification that reframes the discussion of ‘the defining issue of our time’ with a new gravity and greater immediacy.

This was largely driven by media organisation The Guardian, which made an impactful pledge to change the language it uses to communicate environmental issues, recognising the severity of the crisis. In May 2019, the Guardian updated its style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world, using “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” instead of “climate change” and “global warming”. “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on the urgency of this issue,” said the Guardian.

The shortlist

Analysis of language data recorded in the Oxford Corpus shows how the global preoccupation with the state of the climate and possible solutions to divert ecological disaster, have permeated different domains – uniting key issues from farming to mental health, and air travel to legal campaigns, under the climate debate.

Climate emergency may lead, but the shortlist reflects the prominence of climate-related language documented in the Oxford corpus.

This year, the shortlist included:

  • climate crisis
  • climate action
  • climate denial
  • eco-anxiety (read more about that here)
  • ecocide
  • extinction
  • flight shame
  • global heating
  • net-zero 
  • plant-based

Over the years

How the 2019 Word of the Year compares to previous years since the Oxford Dictionary started this tradition:

  • 2018: Toxic
  • 2017: Youthquake
  • 2016: Post-truth
  • 2015: (Face with tears of joy emoji)
  • 2014: Vape
  • 2013: Selfie
  • 2012: Omnishambles (UK) and GIF (US)
  • 2011: Squeezed middle
  • 2010: Big society (UK) and Refudiate (US) (Vuvuzela was on the shortlist but didn’t quite make it)
  • 2009: Simples (UK) and Unfriend (US)
  • 2008: Credit crunch (UK) and Hypermiling (US)
  • 2007: Carbon footprint (UK) and Locavore (US)
  • 2006: Bovvered (UK) and Carbon Neutral (US)

Pop culture

It is encouraging to see environmental issues receiving recognition in the mainstream lexicon.

The focus on the phrase climate emergency brings to mind the song called “Emergency on Planet Earth”. Anyone remember the British pop star Jamiroquai? In his 1993 album (26 years ago!) he was already telling us we’ve got an emergency on planet Earth. Seriously, watch this video, its a hilarious blast from the past:

On the note of British pop stars, Coldplay recently also announced that they will not be going on tour to promote their latest album, until touring is at least carbon neutral. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin told BBC News that the band will take time over the next couple of years to work out how their tour could be not just sustainable, but “actively beneficial”.

What do you say… do you think climate emergency is just as popular in South African discussions as it seems to be globally? Or should we have a different word of the year? Tell us about it on the forum

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