Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, writes:
I've been mulling for weeks now about the difference between a leak and a spill, and the inadequacy of both terms to describe what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico.
When President Obama spoke in November of 2008 about the enormity of the task before us, he was using the term in a way that is increasingly common, but still rejected by usage experts. In that context, he meant enormousness — sheer size, immensity — not enormity, which means (according to The American Heritage Dictionary) either "the quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness" or "a monstrous offense or evil; an outrage."
He could use the term now: the oil-gushing hole in the ocean floor is an enormity in that second sense. That fact — and I believe it to be a fact — seems to me to be diminished by the inadequacy of the nouns we use to refer to what is happening: spill and leak.
On purely lexicographic grounds I object to the use of spill, which is simply inaccurate. Nothing spilled out of a container; the reserve of oil below the sea floor is not a tanker. But on moral grounds, I think the use of spill is the worst sort of careless euphemism: it downplays the enormity (in the first sense) of the disaster by suggesting that there is a finite amount of oil that will be released.
The word leak is a little more accurate: a leaking pipe, for instance, will not stop until the leak is patched or the water source is turned off. Yet leaks are prototypically minor; a leak that isn't fixed can become a gaping hole and allow water to gush, but by then you have a rupture, not a leak.
We've ruptured the ocean floor, like a ruptured femoral artery, a wound that can't clot, that is not self-healing. That reality is an enormity. Well may we tremble at the immensity of the task of healing that rupture and recovering from its consequences.
Let us know what you think the Gulf oil spill should be called in the comments below! And if you want to hear further discussion on the topic, check out Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer's appearance on WNYC's "The Takeaway" here.
Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.