Please Stop Calling It a Spill!

June 21st, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

My almost-five-year-old daughter knocked over her glass of milk the other night at dinner. The result? A small puddle of milk on and under our kitchen table otherwise known as spilled milk. My wife’s and my reactions? “Oops. You spilled your milk. Oh well, accidents happen. Let’s clean it up.” With nothing more than a few rags, the spill was “contained” and no damage to our home occurred. As the saying goes, not worth crying over spilled milk.

Now compare my daughter’s milk spill to the massive economic and environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico known as the BP oil “spill.” Almost two months after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, oil is still pouring out of the still uncapped well. Do you notice the absurdity here? Unlike the milk spill, this is one spill worth crying over. And our national reaction? Not the same as that over the spilled milk. Definitely not “Oh well, accidents happen.” How about shock, anger, frustration, and despair?

As someone whose work is based on the use — and power — of words, I have been amazed and appalled at the ongoing use of the word spill to describe what is, in reality, the antithesis of a spill as we normally think of it. What word better describes the yet-to-be-halted flow of millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf waters that support marine life, the fishing industry, and tourism? How about gusher, torrent, outpouring, spewing, or deluge for starters.

I’ve asked a number of people about this distinction and several have said, “who cares what word is used, it’s simply semantics.” But whenever I hear that rationalization I say that the difference is not just semantic because words represent substance and meaning. Words shape our perceptions of the world and how we think about and react to the world. And to call what happened a spill is to trivialize it and fail to accurately describe the disaster that it clearly is. That minimization may also reduce the severity of how we interpret it. And for something of this scale, diminishing this tragedy will only interfere with our efforts to respond to it.

What should we call what is happening in the Gulf? Disaster, tragedy, catastrophe, devastation, cataclysm? I don’t think there is a word that does it justice. Perhaps we need to come up with a new word, maybe a portmanteau. Mmmm…let’s see. How about Oilgate or Fuelishness (no political innuendo intended)? Okay, I admit that I can’t come up with anything off the top of my head. Can you do better?

But my main point is this: Please, stop calling it a spill!

(This article was also published at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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5 Responses to “Please Stop Calling It a Spill!”

  1. Dan Miller |


    How about Man-Caused Disaster? It sounds pretty good: Janet Napolitano would approve, the pelicans, fish and other creatures would appreciate the implicit absolution and, like elimination of the no-no word terrorism, might even “move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.” Seems like a win-win solution to me.

    I can’t claim credit(?) for having been the first to think of this; Google came up with multiple sources. It still seems pretty adequate.

  2. larry ennis |

    I have also wondered why the media has continued to want to try and pass this tragedy off as something attributed to a “spill”. Your analogy of the spilled milk is as good as any.
    We are faced with a paradox of sorts. Man induced disasters, with oil, such as this one have only one equal in our country. The Exon Valdeze spill. Since then all similar accidents have been called spills. A term burned into our consciousness. A kin to calling a ship a boat. The other side of the issue is that what we have is so much worse than a common leak that the truth at its full impact is to overwhelming.

  3. Tom Carter |

    I agree — there just isn’t a word strong enough and profound enough to describe this disaster. Listen to the people of the Gulf coast area as they’re interviewed, and the word that most often comes to mind is “heartbreak.”

  4. d |

    Disastrophy? Exploastrophy? If your child poured all the milk in your house out,then you went back to the store a billion times,for milk, and she continued to pour it out,and if it was at a very high pressure,then maybe close. Even though milk would probably not destroy the land,as the oil is destroying the ocean.
    A spill already happened,this is an ongoing gushing,where do they get the term spill or leak,not a spill or a leak,but more like a volcano.Oilcano?

  5. lolli |

    Spill does seem to imply it happened once and that was the end of it. Leak is better, although that brings to mind a leaky faucet; while there can certainly be larger leaks in that case – water main, for example – I just don’t think we are fully capable of using existing terminology to visualize the scope of this disaster. Your term “fuelishness” is spot on.

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