I live in Alberta, where the oil and gas industry takes up a good chunk of daily media coverage. Since I sometimes get asked to comment on the persuasive effects of various wording choices by politicians or companies, I was especially interested to come across claims of evidence that public opposition to the method of natural gas extraction known as fracking might be bolstered by its problematic name. (Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, and the process involves injecting a highly pressurized fluid underground to create fractures in rock layers to release gas.) The finding originates from a survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, which, as stated in the report, was designed to investigate the following:
It was hypothesized by the Public Policy Research Lab that the actual word "Fracking" may have a negative connotation that is separate from the environmental concerns that often accompany discussions of the process. Due to the harsh consonant sounds in the word itself, and an undeniable similarity to a certain other four letter word starting with the letter "F", it seemed plausible that some of the negative public sentiment about "Fracking" may result from how unpleasant the word itself sounds.
The authors of the study don't specify which consonants in the word fracking are "harsh", much less the basis for making this assertion. And it's clear that there are two four letter F-words that risk becoming activated by the geological term, the second of these being frak, which in the Battlestar Galactica TV series has a distribution that aligns perfectly with the earthling word fuck, down to finer points of prosody.
Still, it's perfectly plausible that the shape of the word and its related associations might shade people's impressions of the process to which it refers. Even leaving aside any connections to taboo words, intergalactic or otherwise, there's some evidence that certain sounds evoke some semantic characteristics more than others. For example, marketing professor Richard Klink carried out a systematic study in which he made up brand names for products and asked people questions like: Which ketchup is thicker, Nidax or Nodax; Which knife is sharper, Zaf or Daf? Though the differences were subtle, judgments weren't random.
Based on the LSU survey results, the fracking label is being singled out. The study reports that when the survey questions contained the word fracking, respondents were more likely to say that the method was unsafe and that the state should not encourage its use than when the questions did not use the word fracking. The authors of the study, Kirby Goidel and Michael Climek, state that "the results indicate that the unpleasant sound of the word ‘Fracking' might be partially responsible for safety fears, and a lack of support for the process." And Suzy Thomspon, a journalist writing for Calgary's Fast Forward newspaper, questions whether "the industry's decision to consistently publicly refer to the process as "hydraulic fracturing" rather than "fracking" is more for precision's sake than a calculated avoidance of what's becoming a dirty word."
Well, maybe. But the actual survey as it was conducted doesn't really warrant all this finger-pointing at the unfortunate word, at least not yet. Here are the questions that Goidel and Climek actually compared:
1. How much have you read about hydraulic fracturing or fracking—a process that uses the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals to remove natural gas from rocks deep in the earth's surface—a lot, some, not much, or nothing so far?
2. As far as you know, do you think hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a very safe method to extract natural gas from the ground, somewhat safe, not very safe, or not at all safe?
3. Some people say that the state should encourage hydraulic fracturing because of the economic benefits, while other say that the state should NOT encourage hydraulic fracturing or fracking because of potential environmental impact. Which comes closer to your view?
"Questions without fracking":
1. How much have you read about a new way to extract natural gas that uses the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals to remove natural gas from rocks deep in the earth's surface—a lot, some, not much, or nothing so far?
2. As far as you know, do you think this process is a very safe method to extract natural gas from the ground, somewhat safe, not very safe, or not at all safe?
3. Some people say that the state should encourage drilling for natural gas by this process because of the economic benefits. Others say that the state should NOT encourage drilling because of potential environmental impact. Which comes closer to your view?
Needless to say, we don't know from this study whether people had more reservations about the process due to the presence or fracking, the presence of hydraulic fracturing, or both. Or whether there was some persuasive benefit to avoiding a name for the process entirely (as in non-fracking Questions 1 and 2), to describing it as "new" (as in Question 1) or referring to it with the broader term drilling (as in Question 3).
But whether or not fracking is inherently repulsive due to its sounds and associations with profanity, it looks like the word is headed for the same kind of linguistic polarization as the terms oilsands and tarsands—it's now no longer possible to refer to a particular geographic area in which bitumen is extracted without committing yourself to a public statement of support for or opposition to the development of the resource. A lexical gap for the politically neutral yawns wide; author Geo Takach suggests it be filled with bitsands.
The progressive news site Common Dreams notes that as "fracktivists" deliberately use fracking in pejorative contexts, the word is increasingly being avoided by the gas industry and its supporters. For instance, it was nowhere to be found in Barack Obama's 2012 State of the Union Address:
It was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock, reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.
And it's this socio-political divide in the contexts of its use, its function in broadcasting a particular attitude, more than the sounds of the word itself, that promises to give the word a distinctive tint.