'/> Uncommon Hours: Don't call it a ‘spill’
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Monday, June 21, 2010

Don't call it a ‘spill’

Don't call it a ‘spill’
By Bob Sommer
Uncommon Hours

The media likes to call the catastrophe in the Gulf a spill. A Google search on oil spill brings up 681,000,000 results in 0.19 seconds! Famously, BP’s link appears before all of them with the promising subtitle, “GulfOfMexicoResponse.” No doubt they’re on it.

A couple of entries down from BP, Wikipedia offers a definition for oil spill: “… a release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment due to human activity … a form of pollution.”

Yes, but is it a spill?

President Obama called it a spill in his speech last Tuesday. He used the word eight times. Here are a couple of examples:

“Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”

“And BP will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region.”

But something about spill sounds wrong. Spills go downward, not upward. Gravity is involved, not buoyancy. Spills happen when a container full of liquid is knocked over. The liquid falls, splatters. You mop it up with a dishrag.

The word spill carries a sense of benignancy, of harmlessness. It’s limited in quantity and scope. A spill is clean-upable. Spills happen to glasses of milk.

Or in the worst case, until now, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil―some estimate as much as 30 million gallons, and decades of cleanup―but still, a finite quantity. There’s so much and then there’s no more.

But this time is different. What’s come up and what may yet come up from the seabed are not quantifiable, even if BP were willing to provide forthright estimates, which they’re not, or maybe really can’t.

No, we need another word. Not spill.

Gusher, cascade, effusion?

These are liquid events, but usually on land. This one’s already underwater. Too confusing. These don’t work.

Vomit, spout, blow up, discharge, emission, explosion.

Well, there’s an end to these, once they’ve exploded or blown up or whatever.

Plus, they suggest a cause from within the source―that the power or force that led to the vomiting, spouting, blowing up, discharging, emission, or explosion was initiated from inside the entity rather than allowed to escape due to some external or human interference.

Still no good.

But that last point, the human part … a term that would describe the Gulf event has to include it, the human recklessness, the malfeasance, and not merely BP’s, but all human complicity, the behaviors that lead us to desire so much oil that we’re willing to allow BP and all the other oil companies and our government to carry on in ways that allowed this to happen. There’s complicity for all. A term that would describe this event must include that element. No getting around it.

Eruption, leak, fissure, crack, seepage, discharge.

They obviously come up short.

A new word is needed.

Or maybe an old one:

A pandora.

Not that Pandora! Forget about James Cameron and his cartoons. (And his submersibles―as if the U.S. Navy would need Cameron’s help with submersibles, if the U.S. Navy had been called upon to assist, which it hasn’t.)

Think the other Pandora―the original one, the mythical one, the first woman.

In early Greek myths she was first associated with Gaia, with life, earth, fertility. This interpretation treated her generously, though some scholars suggest that things went south for her as patriarchal society emerged and men needed someone to blame for their ills.

Then she became man’s tormenter, one of Zeus’s wicked jokes. Man was getting too full of himself to suit Zeus. Prometheus had passed along some great intel on how to do useful things, like make fire. Prometheus was smart and would have seen trouble coming with her, and Zeus knew it, so he gave her to Epimetheus instead. As his name suggests, Epimetheus had a habit of figuring things out after the fact, too late for his own good.

Pandora’s name is laden with irony—it means “all-gifted.” Idiomatically, we’d say “all-giving.” And was she ever. Once she opened the jar (it was a jar, not a box), the good life was done for. Mankind was scourged by disease, war, calamities of every kind. It was all out. No more hope of stuffing it back in the jar than getting the scent of drugstore perfume back in the bottle once it’s opened.

All that remained in Pandora’s jar now was Hope.

Which raises another question: Was man left with folly or with prospects?

(It's worth noting here that a decent chunk of Obama’s closing focused on prayer, without doubt backfiring on the Hope question.)

But back to the matter of terminology, here’s my modest proposal: the thing in the Gulf should be called a pandora. Make the proper noun a common noun, a thing, not a name.

A pandora.

Moving on from Greece to Rome, the etymology supports the idea. The Latin verb pandӗre means to throw open, stretch out, extend—all of which have a darkly familiar ring.

Here’s how it would sound in a sentence:

“Efforts are underway to stop the pandora” or “Marine wildlife is dying as a result of the pandora” or “Sludge from the pandora is lapping up on the beaches all over the Gulf.”

Or, moving on to the next disaster―which, if the likes of Joe Barton & co. get their way, is all but immanent―we’d do what we mostly do with nouns these days and render it as a verb, as in:

“[Name the fragile ecosystem] has just been pandoraed.”

The spelling might need work, but once it’s been tweeted and texted a few times, the word will find its own way, like a baby sea turtle hustling for its life down the beach from its nest, eluding predators as it swims off to die in the sludge.

You can imagine the Twitter versions:

He was pandoed, dorred, soon to be just pd’d, drd … you get the idea.

For now, call it what it is: a pandora.

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