Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Of Leaks, Spills, and Ruptures (and Enormity)

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.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 4:11 AM
Comment by: Odile B. (DPO, AE)
Oh, it's a rupture all right. The reference to a coronary is all too fitting. Mother Earth is in critical condition.
Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Richard A. (Chicago, IL)
Gush (gusher), hemorrhage. We are hemorrhaging oil!
Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
The misuse of enormity is a pet peeve of mine. That our college-educated lawyer of a president can get it wrong is very sad.
Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 8:23 AM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)

Bravo! Finally someone has brought to light something that has been quietly annoying me. Everytime I would read or hear "spill" or "leak", I knew they weren't the right words.

Thank you for suggesting "rupture" as a replacement for "leak" and "spill". I will gently correct everyone whenever I hear "spill" or "leak" again. I'm sure I will get blank stares!

Also thank you for pointing out the proper usuage of "enormity". I now realize I too have used the word incorrectly.

By the way, Wendalyn is a beautiful name. Is that formal for Wendy? I really don't know.

Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Betje K.
Yes, on one hand calling the earth's hemorrhage a "spill" is a lexical travesty, a preposterous downplay approaching a cover-up. On the other hand, however, at least since the Exxon Valdez episode, "oil spill" implies moral and financial responsibility. Oil companies understand the US policy: You drill-you pay; You spill-you pay. Since this is a man-made disaster, wouldn't a more descriptive word than "spill" lessen the cause-effect responsibility from BP? Our earth is ruptured, but she didn't rupture herself. BP drilled, BP paid; BP "spilled," now BP must pay. "Spill" is code in a modern economic and political equation where a major player takes a risk on harming the environment of a country powerful enough to hold the risk-taker accountable... then loses.
Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 9:36 AM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Not sure I agree with your analysis. The enormousness of the Gulf situation is hard to put into words, but I also see how your definition, "excessive wickedness or outrageousness" or "a monstrous offense or evil; an outrage.", would also apply.

Another Mike
Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Thank you, Wendalyn, for pointing out what a euphemism "spill" is in the recent BP incident. Couldn't agree more. My personal perception of the the meaning of "spill" has had to expand several times since the days when it just involved my mom's tablecloth. By the time another generation comes along, kids will probably be saying "Oh MOM, don't be so dramatic. Don't say I 'SPILLED' the soup. It's just a little _______."

As to "enormity", again I agree with you. But then I'm not a politician. Politicians get points for connecting with people. Generally, they loose points for precision.
Wednesday June 23rd 2010, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Nancy K.
Why is it that the pelicans, rather than the perpetrators, are the only ones being "tarred and feathered?"
Thursday June 24th 2010, 12:25 AM
Comment by: Steve V.
Right on!
And I get to be one of the people who actually knew the difference between enormity and enormousness because I got busted using it incorrectly! I believe the word used to describe my usage was 'fugeize'. (please refer to footnotes in "Donnie Brasco") Thanks for illuminating.
Thursday June 24th 2010, 9:34 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Rupture as in a burst aneurysm seems apt.
The pelicans are feathered and tarred; for politicians the feathers go on top of the tar (rail optional)
Friday June 25th 2010, 6:41 AM
Comment by: jo P. (dartmouth Canada)
We ruptured the earth for our greed........Great word to describewhat we have done
Monday June 28th 2010, 8:43 AM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
For weeks I've worried that careless language doomed a solution to the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico but since I couldn't put my thoughts into words, yours bear repeating:

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.

How about sending them on the Op-ed page of the New York Times?

Mary Lou Shields

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President Obama's use of "enormity" has raised some eyebrows.
The question of "spill" vs. "leak" was raised early on in the Gulf disaster.
Wendalyn Nichols clarifies the difference between "misnomer" and "misperception."