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"Climate" Change: Weathering a Climax
An extension of a federal highway program passed the House recently, over the objections of some Democrats. "Even as they were approving the measure in an anti-climatic voice vote, Democrats sharply criticized Republicans for not accepting a two-year, $109 billion version of the transportation measure the Senate had approved on a bipartisan vote earlier this month," one news report said.
Had the highway bill included provisions for unfettered carbon dioxide emissions, the vote might indeed have been considered anti-climatic. But instead it was anti-climactic, meaning something of a letdown after all the fuss the Democrats had raised. That dropped "c" made a big difference.
Climatic is the adjectival form of climate, while climactic is the adjective for climax. That they are frequently confused should surprise no one. Interestingly, "climactic" seems to be used more when climatic is needed than vice versa. But when the prefix anti- is added, with or without a hyphen, anticlimatic is misused in the place of anticlimactic more than the other way around. Of course, few people would say they were against climate, so anticlimatic is rarely used all by itself.
Garner's Modern American Usage says that the use of climatic when climactic is meant is common enough to have reached Stage 2 on the Language-Change Index, meaning it is unacceptable, but not everyone knows that. And while we're at it, a crescendo is not climactic.
Once upon a time, climactic was an outcast, shunned by grammarians as inferior. Instead, they preferred climacteric, which The Oxford English Dictionary traces to the early 17th century. Later, climactical took over; though the OED says its first use, in 1860, was as a humorous nonsense word, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has listed climactical as an alternative to climactic since its inception in the 1960s.
Garner's says climacteric fell "into disuse as a needless variant of climactic," and few dictionaries have listed them as synonyms since at least the mid-1960s.
But climacteric still has some uses. For one, it means a critical period in life when major changes in health might take place; menopause is referred to as climacteric for women. And some fruits are climacteric: They can be picked unripe and allowed to ripen through their own emissions of ethylene gas. In some ways, their own climatic conditions create climactic changes.
If you've ever put a banana in a paper bag only to find it has turned to mush a day later, you've experienced climacteric change.