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Vocab Lessons4 min read

Vocabulary gives me no end of trouble

As far as I know, no one is talking about climate change the way I am. The ideas are there, but they are hidden, obscure, lost in their words.

The lever to topple climate change is clarity. How can anyone act if it’s unclear what to do? All this technical obscurity has created a universal feeling of hopelessness and impotence. Climate change has become the faceless monster that will get us in the end.

We can find the power to stop it if we can find a way to talk about it. So, vocabulary.

Le mot juste seems to require more inspiration than application, but here’s where I started:

  • Technical terms stick in the mind better if the words sound right together. Alliteration is a good place to start, but assonance and consonance help as well. The term should sound as if it’s meant to be spoken, as if it popped out, fully formed, like Athena in words.
  • Popular culture. Words stick if they sound natural and obvious. No one is going to repeat a term that makes them sound ridiculous. Well, some people might, but no one will take them seriously. A term should be able to be said in normal conversation, on the radio or in a TV commercial.
  • The word should say what it is. If a term requires a big digression to describe it, it will remain forever within the cool kid’s basement and never make it out into the wider world. A term should be so obvious that explaining it seems like overkill. Of course, some terms are very technical, but a little insight should go a long way.
  • Use easy words. Big words should be punctuation not practice. If you want someone to remember something, use the words they say every day. Obscure words are, well, obscure. If someone has to think for a while to remember the precise word you used, they will simply skip over it and move on to something more fun.

In any field, new vocabulary takes time to mature, and climate change is no different. But I believe that the focus should shift from explanation to action.

The word biofuel is a perfect example. the “bio” of biofuel means it’s made from biological stuff. Plants.

So what?

It misses the grist: Biological fuels are part of the carbon cycle and don’t contribute to climate change when they burn. Biofuels offer a solution to global warming, not because they are biological simply, but because biological carbon is distinct from the carbon in fossil fuels. Biological carbon does not cause climate change.

The term “biofuel” assumes that everyone knows that emissions from biological sources—even if they seem like pollution—do not cause climate change. Which brings up another point: there’s good pollution and bad pollution in terms of climate change, so the word pollution is really misleading.

See my point?

My terms may be just as obscure, but I hope they are a step closer to action and clarity:

  • Green carbon carbon that is part of the carbon cycle and our modern biosphere. I like the immediate impression that there is something different about this carbon—that it’s green, living. It’s meant to directly oppose fossil carbon. When used as an adjective, like green-carbon fuel, it evokes the carbon cycle, the source of its “greenness.” I worry that it sounds too dumb and green-washed, like “clean coal.”
  • Fossil carbon — carbon buried for millions of years allowing the carbon cycle to evolve without it, and thereby rendering it harmful when released. The source of climate change. I like the immediate resonance with fossil fuel. I like that it sets up a categorical difference between types of carbon. But, while the carbon of fossil fuel does have slight chemical differences, I worry that the categorization of different types of carbon is too strict. The source is different, not the substance.  
  • Carbon efficiency a rating of fuel efficiency that takes into account the kind of fuel used and its affects on climate change. I like that carbon neutrality is not assumed to be an on/off switch, but an assessment of efficiency. I like that it seems like a standard to live up to. I’m not sure that it is either necessary, or clear what efficiency means.
  • Green miles per gallon (gmpg) — the units of carbon efficiency, expressed like miles per gallon. I like the simplicity of “green” and its evocation of the green movement and the benefit for the planet, i.e. stopping climate change. I like the abbreviation, gmpg: it’s simple, the ‘g’s complement each other, and it’s easy enough to see the mpg within. I worry that the “green” is still too obscure.

Anyway, there’s no one so snarky as a linguist. I’d better leave off here before I really offend someone.

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