One fracking word or another

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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:

"Fracking questions":

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.

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30 Comments »

  1. Bobbie said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    Fracking, frigging, fricking…. Yup, they all have a negative connotation to me.

  2. Adam said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    Fracking always reminds me of the euphemism frickin' that one of my cousins uses a lot (I guess it's a hybrid of freaking and frigging).

  3. marie-lucie said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    Frack is not literally a "four-letter" word, but the sound of the word fracking associates the wrenching violence of the onomatopeic crack with the potential obscenity of f(r)..ck/g(ging). Even a benign method, called by this word, might evoke negative reactions.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    "Bitsands" sounds like a word for a digital desert—perhaps the online equivalent of Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" of television.

  5. richard said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    If I am not mistaken, American cartoon characters such as Yosemite Sam (starting around 1945) and Fred Flintstone (starting 1960) mumble "Rackin' frackin'" when they swear. So, in a sense, "fracking" had negative (albeit humorously negative) associations before the arrival of hydraulic fracturing.

  6. KevinM said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    Another Fokine ballet.

  7. Henning Makholm said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    Me the word reminds of fragging, suggesting that oil is being extracted by horribly killing the poor innocent rocks. Also there seems to be some hint that such dead rock isn't exactly what you'd want to keep the landscape up.

  8. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    Regarding Yosemite Sam, his phrase is actually "rassen-fressen" which I am reliably informed is an actual Yiddish swearword meaning, "rat-chewing."

    This is curious, since aside from the last two syllables of his first name the character doesn't appear to be even remotely related to any yiddish-speaking groups.

    Ray

  9. Yuval said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    Cue the soundbite "Frak, baby, frak!".

  10. marie-lucie said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Yosemite Sam

    "Yosemite", as in the name of the park "Sam" comes from, is pronounced "yo-SEMM-itty". Resemblance of the spelling with that of the name of the descendants of one of Noah's sons is purely coincidental, since the word is from a local Native California language. .

  11. David said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

    Yosemite Sam's voice was provided by
    Mel Blanc,
    who was Jewish.

  12. Rube said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    Also, Yosemite Sam was rumoured to be closely modelled on his short-tempered director, Isadore "Friz" Freleng. who probably knew some Yiddish cussing.

  13. Alex said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    One interesting tidbit about the whole "fracking" issue (grammatical and otherwise) is that the petroleum industry generally does not use the word "fracking." Not by choice, but by habit. There are "frac jobs or fracs," "frac-and-packs," "frac fluids," but no "fracking" (notice no "k," just a "c"). Fractures, fracture gradient, hydraulic fracturing, and more, are all fracture-related terms that the industry uses. Fracking is not:

    http://www.glossary.oilfield.slb.com/MainIndex.cfm?ID=6
    (list of common industry terms beginning with F, many of which use "frac.")

    The use of the term "fracking" has become more common among younger people in the industry who heard the word before they took their jobs. But you won't find it much, if at all, in the written or spoken discourse of old workers. It's just not in the lexicon, despite the existence of hydraulic fracturing for many decades.

    [(js) Thanks for that link, Alex. The departure from the original spelling is also discussed in the articles I linked to above. For example, Suzy Thomson's piece quotes Travis Davies, media spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers:

    “The original spelling was actually F-R-A-C-C, right? So it’s an interesting example of how language evolves and changes, but I think we always try to go back to at least the base words, he says in explaining how the industry talks about fracking to the public.

    And the Common Dreams piece also notes that the word fracking does not appear in the Associated Press style book, though there are tentative plans to include an entry in the 2012 edition.]

  14. Joyce Melton said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    Y'know, Yosemite Sam is just the sort of fellow who would go in for fracking in a big way. Maybe the industry should adopt him as a mascot.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    He could team up with Calamite Jane.

  16. un malpaso said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    Maybe the oil and gas industry could get behind a new coinage that attains a compromise between connotations. How about "extracking?"

    Also, on a side note… the Battlestar Galactica "frak" always reminds me of Norman Mailer's editorially-forced usage of "fug" in his novel The Naked and the Dead… unfortunately a much less euphonious choice for soldier-speak.

  17. Bobbie said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 9:03 pm

    I'm pretty sure I head Yosemite Sam saying "frackin" at 0:33.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnDxPG3KrtA

  18. John said,

    June 28, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

    Fracking, frigging, fricking… all strong positives for me.

  19. NW said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 3:44 am

    Fred Flintstone once murmured something vaguely like ruggen buggen snuggen duggen as he trailed mutinously out of his boss's office. His boss pulled him up short and demanded, 'What did you say, Flintstone?' At which Fred said, quite politely and cleary, 'Oh, I said "ruggen buggen snuggen duggen", sir.'

    He may have muttered other frak-like things at other times but I've always remembered that one. It's sort of like lampshading the asterisks and skulls in cartoon swear-words.

  20. Adam said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    "May I remind you young ladies that the gentleman is talking about German aircraft."

    "You're absolutely right, Miss. Those fokkers were in bloody Messerschmidts."

  21. annieone said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    A more recent use of fracking as a f-word substitute is the relatively popular tv series Battlestar Galactica, whose characters made a very intensive use of the word. The serie's fans could have spread the usage.

    [(js) Yes. As pointed out in the original post.]

  22. Ken Brown said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

    Frankly, girls in frilly frocks should never eat figs with their fingers.

  23. Michael Cargal said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    I once read that Norman Mailer (who used the euphemism "fug" in "The Naked and the Dead") was introduced to a woman at a party who said to him, "Oh, yes. You're the one who can't spell "fuck."

  24. Brett said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    @Michael Cargal: I believe that was Dorothy Parker.

  25. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    @ Ray Dillinger:

    Regarding Yosemite Sam, his phrase is actually "rassen-fressen" which I am reliably informed is an actual Yiddish swearword meaning, "rat-chewing."

    Sorry, Ray, but you were informed very unreliably:

    1) "rassen-fressen" is not Yiddish but Yiddish-German nonsense; ratsn fresn is Yiddish.

    2) The Yiddish word for "rat" is rats, plural ratsn (a as in AmE "father").

    3) Yiddish fresn (and German fressen): to eat (used for animals); to devour greedily; to eat in a gross, vulgar manner.

    4) Thus ratsn fresn means literally "to eat rats in a gross, vulgar manner." No chewing.

    5) This term is not an actual Yiddish swearword but a nonsensical exclamation expressing frustration, anger, and the like. It just sounds nasty and harsh.

  26. Saturday Evening Posts Worth Reading. said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    [...] Julie Sedivy on the fascinating difference a word can make. The Language Log. [...]

  27. David said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    The first two pages of Google hits for "fressen" are mostly restaurants, bakeries, and so forth. Does it have other, more positive, connotations, or is this a widespread German joke on the piggish Anglophones?

  28. Angiportus said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

    Whether abrupt or high-energy consonants sound harsh/ugly depends partly on the person hearing them, and also on the way the person speaking uses them. This I have noticed for a long time. I am less concerned over the word used for the gas-derivation process than about the side effects of said process, but it's still good that folks are examining stuff like this.
    There is/are no trivia; it's all interconnected.

  29. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

    @ David:

    The first two pages of Google hits for "fressen" are mostly restaurants, bakeries, and so forth. Does it have other, more positive, connotations, or is this a widespread German joke on the piggish Anglophones?

    No joke, because there are as many piggish Germans, Austrians, and Swiss as there are piggish Yanks, Brits, and other Anglophones.

    The proprietors who name their restaurants, bakeries, etc. "Fressen" appear to be ignorant of the pejorative, deprecatory, disparaging, and disapproving meaning of German fressen when applied to people.

    Humans essen (eat), animals fressen.
    Humans trinken (drink), animals saufen.

    The verbs used for animals' eating and drinking are neutral and have no negative connotations. When applied to humans, however, they are negative and mean that the persons eat and drink like "uncivilized" animals. Saufen means that a person drinks much, greedily, sloppily, or is a drunkard (Säufer).

  30. ajay said,

    July 12, 2012 @ 6:07 am

    the pejorative, deprecatory, disparaging, and disapproving meaning of German fressen when applied to people. Humans essen (eat), animals fressen.

    Discussed by, among others, Primo Levi in "If This Is A Man". Du esst nicht, du fresst.

    "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."

    Quite. And it's not as though there are a lot of people out there for whom the word "fracture" has positive connotations. "Hydraulic fracturing" sounds like "using machinery of great power to break things with violence", and that doesn't sound good at all.

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