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Nov. 20, 2019, 4:27 p.m. EST

‘Climate emergency’: Another dictionary says Greta Thunberg’s movement is rewriting our language

Oxford Dictionaries has selected its 2019 word of the year from a climate-only shortlist

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By Rachel Koning Beals


Getty Images
Activist Greta Thunberg tells the UN Climate Action Summit in September that the climate emergency she believes is underway demands that she unfairly give up the life of a regular teenager to protest.

Perhaps we can credit the message and social-media machinations from teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, or deep-pocketed investments like this just-revealed solar play from Bill Gates. Either way, Oxford Dictionaries says its word of the year for 2019 reflects a new urgency rippling through the social, business and political lexicon:

‘climate emergency’

The publisher’s annual selection reflects the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the passing year, and has lasting potential as a term of cultural significance, Oxford explained in a release Wednesday.

Oxford, in fact, had shortlisted only climate-related language for its annual release this time around, including: climate action; climate crisis; climate denial; eco-anxiety; ecocide; extinction; flight shame; global heating; net-zero; and plant-based.

“This has been a fascinating year for the word ‘climate,’ and we see that reflected especially in the way that English speakers have combined it with other words. We are clearly struggling to articulate our climate anxiety,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries.

Usage of the phrase “climate emergency” by September was more than 100 times as common as it had been the previous year. The phrase surpassed all of other types of emergency (health, hospital, family, etc.,) to become the most written-about emergency by a huge margin, with over three times the usage frequency of health, the second-ranking word. Statistically speaking, this represents a new trend in the use of the word emergency, Oxford said.

Oxford isn’t the only reference book to recognize the topic’s expanding usage. U.K.-based Collins Dictionary declared “climate strike” as its winner. It noticed a hundredfold increase in its use in 2019 tied in large part to the notoriety of Thunberg and her inspired school and workplace walkouts around the globe.

Read: ‘Vulture capitalism’ and the all the latest finance terms added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary

Rachel Koning Beals is a MarketWatch news editor in Chicago.

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