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“Disaster” and “tragedy” display language incontinence

  • October 12th, 2011

What emotional reserves will New Zealanders have when we are struck by genuine disaster? Today's DomPost headline reports as "disaster" a non-fatal ship stranding with a fuel oil spill.  So flatulent has our public discourse become over any loss that the hyperbole may go unremarked. Or worse – New Zealanders may think this is genuinely as bad as things can get..

Language is debased by claims that our "worst maritime disaster" is a few hundred tonnes of fuel oil in the sea.  It seems to be based on the likely fate of some sea birds, and the unpleasantness of months or years of oily cow pats on beautiful beaches. Those deposits were familiar on some beaches, including Paekak, when I was a child. Apparently they came as ships cleaned their oil bunkers at sea in preparation for refuelling in Wellington. We burned them in beach fires, or left them to go hard and scarcely distinguishable from stones.

If the Rena is "disaster" of the worst kind, what about the Wahine, or the other sinkings that have taken hundreds of lives around our coasts? What about the milliions of seabirds killed  by the El Nino/La Nina cycle of feast and famine every decade?  What about beautiful beaches ruined by uncontrolled erosion, or the blocking of the normal replenishment cycle as tamed rivers no longer discharge their annual flood shingle.  What about the economic costs of the lost ship and cargo. Sure, they are probably insured, but insurance just spreads losses – it does not mean we do not eventually pay.

What language resilience will have have when White Island explodes again, or some other volcanic venting kills kilotons of  marine life, releasing shiploads of mercury and sulphuric acid and arsenic and other pollutants into the atmosphere and the sea.

I might have ignored today's DomPost if it had not come on top of yesterday's Herald headlines talking of Piri  Weepu's "tragedy". What was it?

His grandfather had died, full of years and with every reason to be proud of his family. Where is the "tragedy" in such a death. We must all die. If we are fortunate we die with family, mourned and missed. But that is not tragedy.

Could not some media lead in the rehabilitation of that spurned inheritance  – the stiff upper lip. For the sake of dignity alone, but more importantly so that we leave ourselves some language with which to convey and share feelings in the face of genuine catastrophe.

PS NBR is on to the job. Thank you Nevil Gibson



I wonder if this is a problem with our journalism or commentariat per se, or if it's a problem with our language.
English just doesn't handle spectra very well.  There are few reasonable words between (to pick a few example-pairs) 'disaster' and 'windfall', 'just' and 'unjust', 'humiliation' and 'triumph'.
How would you describe the (potential) impact of the Rena accident at this point?  "New Zealand's most irritating oil-overboard bother in decades"?  Remember that it's got to fit in a headline — else people will just skip over information that is clearly newsworthy.
Sometimes people are use intemperate language because they're intemperate; sometimes, it's just really hard to find the most accurate word; and sometimes, there just isn't a particularly precise word to choose in the first place.
Interested in your thoughts.

  • dragonfly
  • October 12th, 2011
  • 6:24 pm

Tragically, my 12 year old daughter has a more balanced perspective than the Herald reporter. She happened to notice the Piri Weepu headline and she wondered how an old person's death could be a tragedy when so many old people die of oldness all the time.

  • George
  • October 12th, 2011
  • 6:41 pm

How about   'New Zealand's most recent navigation and watchkeeping fiasco"?

  • Roger Strong
  • October 15th, 2011
  • 7:31 pm

   I quite agree and the NZ Herald is really bad at this – under the new editor its headlines constantly scream such flatulent material in bigger and bigger headlines and to less and less effect.

[…] Rena’s striking of the Astrolabe Reef is certainly a bad news story, although as Stephen Franks and others have pointed out, it’s not as bad as some would have us believe. Nevertheless, it […]

  • Aaron
  • November 11th, 2011
  • 10:25 pm

Definitely another topic which annoys me too- Plato's quote springs to mind-  "As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest blabbers," . Re the Rena oil, in their rush to frighten us all over the toxic mess,  the media seem to entirely overlook that we have thousands of tons of even less refined oil derivative exposed and running past every home and school in the country- and we are sieving the beaches- completely mindless. I have passed your childhood anecdote on to many here- thanks.

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