A Note on the S Word

by Catherine Schmitt

I refuse to use the word “spill” when discussing or writing about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, death of 11 people (now 12, if you include the related suicide of a fisherman), and resulting uncapped, uncontrolled emission of oil from the sea floor.

To call the release of five million barrels of oil a “spill” is simply inaccurate. We’re not talking about a kid knocking a glass of milk off the dinner table. This is not grape juice to be soaked up by a single paper towel. An accident, yes, but the word “spill” implies liquid tipping out of a container (as oil from a tanker ship) or overflowing a confined space, like the floodwaters spilling over the levee in the wake of the storm.

A barrel contains 42 gallons of oil. Five million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf from BP’s broken Macondo well. Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil per day, 70% of it used for transportation, according to the US Energy Information Administration.


Sometimes the English language just fails.

So what word is appropriate? I think geyser most closely approximates the pressure of the situation. For a while I called it a volcano, because that’s what it looked like. But now I most frequently use the word “disaster,” because people died, the Gulf is a mess, and coastal communities are still being hurt by it. The S-word doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of the challenge, or the people who face it every day.