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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.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 5th 2012, 8:36 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for choosing another sets of interesting and lively words.
I liked it specially for that chemistry metaphor. Self released ethylene gas by fruits and vegetables is an effective example for the word meaning of "climactic"- for me it is a brand new information.
In nature we see climacteric phenomena exist as it is one method for propagation of species and applied equally for all living creatures. Climate change topic is so hot now, whereas the climacteric understanding is the coolest. Thus for next generation of human being this set of words is the seed for thoughts. Thank you again.

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