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OnWords: Climate Denier and Other Associations


Terms like “climate denier” tend to make language sticklers blanch.

After all, those who carry this label do not deny that there is a climate; they just dismiss humanity’s role in changing it.

Language sticklers also object to such things as the suffix “gate” for denoting political scandals. Using “gate” this way derives from the Watergate scandal that took down Nixon, but notably this term for Nixon’s problems come from the fact that it happened at the Watergate hotel.

So “Watergate” already substitutes a single, related word for a complex break-in and a cover-up. It’s an example of a type of metaphor called metonymy, substituting a related idea for the thing itself.

“Gate” or “climate denier,” then, are actually examples of the associative agility of language and the mental flexibility of language users.

When you say “email-gate,” for example, everyone who has been paying even passing attention to the news instinctively knows what you’re talking about. You may lose a certain amount of accuracy with a term like “climate denier,” but you gain a good deal of speed.

So rather than being grumpy about these substitutions, we should celebrate them as examples of the endless flexibility of words.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.