26 February 2016

Resurrected post: Earth science-y catchphrases

Posted by Jessica Ball

ResurrectedNote: This “resurrected post” is from January 2011, which shows you just how long some of these post ideas can languish in the “Draft” hopper! 

My father and I share a habit: we tend to point out and grumble over certain catchphrases we hear or read in a news report, mostly because they’re misused, overused, or just plain don’t make sense. He dislikes things such as “address the issue” or “touch base” or “spearhead”.  Me? I make faces when I hear Earth science terms getting co-opted. Occasionally they’re used in the context of discussing natural phenomena or scientific topics, but sometimes, especially if they’re used metaphorically, the connection between the geoscience term and the actual subject of the report can be a bit tenuous.

I’m of mixed feelings about this; in cases where the science term came first, I wish people actually knew what the term they’re using is describes in a scientific sense, but if they can use it in an appropriate context, maybe it means that they already do know a little bit of the background. (Or maybe they don’t; word overuse in some cases means that people have completely forgotten what a term was originally meant for.)

During my undergrad days, I took a few anthropology courses for a minor, including a linguistics one in which we talked about how language changes over time. English is notable for the way it assimilates new words, like using proprietary eponyms (where a word for a particular product comes to describe an entire group of things – xerox or kleenex, for example), or loanwords (taking a word from a foreign language without translating it and often using it to mean something else (café from the French for coffee, or bazaar for the Persian bāzār, which means ‘market’). I find this all fascinating, and I know that news media has become a big influence on modern language changes. As a scientist, I sometimes get a little twitchy when jargon (technical language related to a specific field) is adapted to mean something slightly different in a casual context. That’s just me being crotchety, though – the linguistic equivalent of “you kids get off my lawn!” The etymology is still pretty fascinating.

So what does a geologist see getting used for non-geological purposes? Here are a few of the more common examples (and because I love the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology information, their origins and whether science or the vernacular had them first):

This one is determined to smack you in the face with water references, isn't it?

This one is milking the water theme for all it’s worth.

“Perfect storm” (Science: 1936, Vernacular: 1997) – This is a modern term that gets terribly overused. The original definition was exclusively applied to weather and was popularized in a book title for a story about a fishing crew who encounter a confluence of several storms at sea. In reference to a remarkable confluence of events that, by being combined, end up worse than the individual events, it makes sense. However, folks in the news now tend to use it to describe just about any coincidence, which always strikes me as both hyperbolic and lazy. There are lots of words in the dictionary that get less mileage and sound just as neat. (What’s so bad about saying “remarkable confluence?”)

The liberal use of quotation marks always strikes me as an indication that someone knows they aren't using the term quite as it was meant...

The liberal use of quotation marks always strikes me as an indication that someone knows they aren’t using the term quite as it was meant…

“Seismic” or “Tectonic shift” (Science: 1958, Vernacular: 1962) –  I hear this a lot when people are trying to describe an event with far-reaching effects or on a grand scale, and technically it’s not incorrect. But “seismic” is a poor choice for that, since earthquakes can be extremely small as well as large. (The large ones, of course, get more attention.) Tectonic gets the scale right, but tectonic processes are slow, and don’t necessarily produce earthquakes, and mostly aren’t noticeable at all without specialized instruments. So using the phrase “tectonic shift” to describe a change in, for example, popular opinons about something, really doesn’t have the same impact to a geologist that it might to other people.

“Eruption” (Science: 1603, Vernacular: 1598) – This is a case where a term used to describe a sudden violent outburst or occurrence was probably co-opted by the geologists. In nature, volcanic eruptions can actually be quite passive – think of the lava flows on Kilauea! – but it’s the violent eruptions that tend to stay in our memories. We see the phrase “eruption of violence” a lot, because the parallel people are trying to draw is of an explosion. (The first use of eruption in a volcanic context, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in 1603 by P. Holland tr. Plutarch Morals, “The breakings forth and eruptions of fire out of a mountaine,” while the first non-volcano use the OED lists is probably Shakespeare in the 1590s.) 

“Earthquake” (Science: as early as 1325; Vernacular: 1592)  Seismology sure is a popular way to talk about big changes that happen all at once! The funny thing is, we’ve been finding out recently (in the past decade or so) that not all earthquakes are sudden. In fact, some “slow” earthquakes might happen over the course of weeks or months. Most people’s go-to concept of an earthquake is an acute event that produces a lot of damage in a short amount of time, though, so that’s probably why the term is used for other sudden upheavals.

Granted, that is a LOT of surfboards. But I don't think I'd want to see what an avalanche of them looks like!

Granted, that is a LOT of surfboards. But I don’t think I’d want to see what an avalanche of them looks like!

“Avalanche” (Science: 1765; Vernacular: 1850) – Originally avalanche specifically referred to a sudden downslope movement of ice and snow (it’s either of French or Italian origin, depending on who you ask, but both countries contain chunks of the Alps that are prone to such things). Now it’s come to mean any overwhelming accumulation of things (or a sudden arrival of them); I mostly end up envisioning them cascading down a mountainside, which makes for some pretty funny mental images. (I mean, an actual avalanche of surfboards would be pretty interesting to watch, right? It worked for tribbles in Star Trek.)

And because I’m a scientist and we love graphs, here’s the Google Ngram take on when these phrases started getting popular (at least in literature):

Apologies for not embedding the fancy interactive version! You can check that out here.

Apologies for not embedding the fancy interactive version! You can check that out here.

There are a couple of really cool things to notice here. For instance, “eruption” gets popular around 1776, 1800, and 1864 – not in conjunction with large volcanic eruptions, but almost certainly with the Revolutionary War, French Revolution and Civil War. “Earthquake” seems to be more closely linked with actual earthquakes (the St. Joseph earthquake in 1766, Sumatra earthquakes in 1797 and 1833, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are clear standouts), while “seismic” and “tectonic” don’t really get popular until plate tectonics became accepted as a theory in the 60s and 70s. (“Avalanche” seems to be pretty steady no matter what, which implies – to me at least – that it was co-opted from its mountainous origins early on.)

As a lot of you know, I find the way we communicate things is often as fascinating as the subject matter (and maybe if I hadn’t been a geologist I would have ended up in a linguistics department). And even if I do get a little twitchy over the use (or misuse) of geological terms, I like that the science that’s attached to them still has a chance to work its way into the vernacular as well.