The importance of the words we use

As a writer, I’m very interested in words. In fact, in my work-in-progress, I use this interest a couple of times to add a new dimension to my female lead character. She’s an educated woman who loves slang, so she sometimes uses really long words and other times she’ll burst out with a slang term that catches her friends off guard.

I’m also interested in the way words are used in the media. Of course, if you follow my blog at all, you know how obsessed I am with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Yesterday I noticed a report that called BP’s stopper and pipe mechanism that is, as of the last report I read this morning, siphoning off about 40 percent of the oil, a “contraption”. No really. And it wasn’t even on a site that should be considered anti-BP or pro-environment. It was a report on MSNBC. You can view it here: MSNBC.

This amused me in a darkly funny way. It was like the reporter was letting just a little of his/her own doubt about BP’s abilities leak through. I’ve read dozens of articles, possibly a hundred or more. The first thing I do once I get my kids off to school is have my coffee and peruse the oil spill news. I read articles from all over. I read articles by Greenpeace, the National Wildlife Federation, The Huffington Post, CNN, NBC, whatever. And I’ve noticed a number of odd word usages, and some that made me downright mad. “Dispersants” as we all know by now, are chemicals, possibly as harmful as the oil itself. When Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP, told a newspaper that the amount of oil and dispersant being added to the Gulf of Mexico was “tiny”, I was enraged. You can see that report here: FOX News. An oil slick that is visible from space is not “tiny”, and we can only see what’s on the surface from space. Recent reports have oil plumes stretching miles under the surface. Not tiny. Not small. Big. Bad. Important.

No matter what the issue or how I feel about it, I look at the words being used. How do they make me feel? Who’s putting them out there? The media’s use of “contraption” might make me feel less than confident that BP can do anything at all to clean up the mess they’ve made. BP’s use of “tiny” might be supposed to give me a sense that too much is being made of this thing, but when I examine other sources, I have no choice but to believe my own eyeballs. I’ve seen the oil plumes under the surface, I’ve seen the oil slick on the surface. I’ve seen images of dead dolphins and sea turtles and oil-soaked birds. And recently we were allowed to see the oil pouring from the pipe underwater. It looked evil.

We’re being played by words. “Dispersants.” Right. “Tiny.” Sure. “Siphoning.” Maybe, but is it too late? “Contraption.” Probably the most true word I’ve heard in connection with this event.