An impactful event
By Mary O’Callaghan
“Welcome to this event—which is indeed an event—unlike a weather event”, beganDon Watson at the launch of his new book, Worst words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon.
It used to just rain, he said, but now we get a rainfall event. The wind used to blow but now we get a wind event. We come into this world now in a birth event, he partly joked.
From events, he progressed to impacts. The word ‘impact’ implies a collision, he said, yet this one word is used to refer to everything from asteroids to dandruff. Hot weather events are impacting bats, he said.
We laughed as we tried to visualise ‘impacted bats’. But, for this audience of language lovers, it was more a strangled sadly-this-is-my-world-you’re-describing whimper than a that’s-bloody-hilarious guffaw.
Why, he asked, with so many words to choose from, do we continually trot out words such as ‘event’ and ‘impact’? (Mind you, he didn’t stop at these two).
And “everyone is complicit, like Stalin’s Russia”, he said. “We don’t see language as worth defending.” A pair of gauntlets laid at our feet.
The stars must have been perfectly aligned that night, because the next morning I was asked to write a story about… extreme weather events and their impact on animals. Was someone having me on? No!
‘Paris, truffles and extreme weather – it’s all relative’, published by CSIRO on theirECOS blog, is my attempt at not being complicit, at defending the language.
I confess to using the word ‘event’ twice, as did the scientist quoted—in our defence, scientists need to count ‘weather events’ so that they can identify trends, so I get that a stormy weekend might comprise 3 storm events. But wherever this didn’t matter, instead of ‘event’ I wrote ‘extreme weather’, ‘dry weather’, ‘dry spells’ or ‘dry periods’.
One way to cut through abstract language and elicit strong verbs and nouns is to ask for examples. Here are some questions I asked to explore what constitutes an ‘extreme weather event’ for an animal and what the ‘impact’ on the animal might be:
- Question: “Is there a species whose extreme weather limits we know?”
- Answer: “… flying foxes… three days over 40 degrees and they fall out of the trees, dead.”
- Question: “Can you give me an example of a species going beyond its normal range?”
- Answer: “A small skink might exist within the 10–20 metres around it. It can go under a leaf or into a clump of grass looking for the microclimate that suits it.”
Strong nouns (days, flying foxes, trees, skink, leaf, clump) and strong verbs (fall) are music to my ears. They add colour, interest and lightness to our writing, making it easier for the reader to understand, and more enjoyable to read.
And the thing I love about scientists is that they never tire of questions—in fact, the more questions I ask, the more enthusiastic they seem to get. So I’ve learnt to keep on digging until I get what I need.