NEW YORK — A different kind of F-word is stirring a linguistic and political debate as controversial as what it defines.
The word is “fracking” – as in hydraulic fracturing, a technique long used by the oil and gas industry to free oil and gas from rock.
It’s not in the dictionary, the industry hates it, and President Barack Obama didn’t use it in his State of the Union speech – even as he praised federal subsidies for it.
The word sounds nasty, and environmental advocates have been able to use it to generate opposition – and revulsion – to what they say is a nasty process that threatens water supplies.
“It obviously calls to mind other less socially polite terms, and folks have been able to take advantage of that,” said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on drilling issues.
One of the chants at an anti-drilling rally in Albany earlier this month was “No fracking way!”
Industry executives argue that the word is deliberately misspelled by environmental activists and that it has become a slur that should not be used by media outlets that strive for objectivity.
“It’s a co-opted word and a co-opted spelling used to make it look as offensive as people can try to make it look,” said Michael Kehs, vice president for Strategic Affairs at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer.
To the surviving humans of the sci-fi TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” it has nothing to do with oil and gas. It is used as a substitute for the very down-to-Earth curse word.
Michael Weiss, a professor of linguistics at Cornell University, says the word originated as simple industry jargon, but has taken on a negative meaning over time – much like the word “silly” once meant “holy.”
But “frack” also happens to sound like “smack” and “whack,” with more violent connotations.
“When you hear the word ‘fracking,’ what lights up your brain is the profanity,” says Deborah Mitchell, who teaches marketing at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Business. “Negative things come to mind.”
Obama did not use the word in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, when he said his administration will help ensure natural gas will be developed safely, suggesting it would support 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.
In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into wells to break up underground rock formations and create escape routes for the oil and gas. In recent years, the industry has learned to combine the practice with the ability to drill horizontally into beds of shale, layers of fine-grained rock that in some cases have trapped ancient organic matter that has cooked into oil and gas.
By doing so, drillers have unlocked natural gas deposits across the East, South and Midwest that are large enough to supply the U.S. for decades. Natural gas prices have dipped to decade-low levels, reducing customer bills and prompting manufacturers who depend on the fuel to expand operations in the U.S.
Environmentalists worry that the fluid could leak into water supplies from cracked casings in wells. They are also concerned that wastewater from the process could contaminate water supplies if not properly treated or disposed of. And they worry the method allows too much methane, the main component of natural gas and an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas, to escape.
Some want to ban the practice altogether, while others want tighter regulations.
Sharon Wilson tracks down the origin of ‘fracking:’
Not long ago, I saw an email or blog post or news article–memory fails me–where some guy in the Marcellus Shale was taking credit for putting the “k” in fracking.
Don’t get me wrong. I love each and every one of my fellow fracktivists in the Marcellus area. You totally ROCK! But, really, I mean, REALLY…
So, I went on a quest to find The One, starting with a search of my own blog. I knew I was not The One but I wanted to see how far back my records went. They went way back. But, before I had my own blog, I blogged about fracking on other blogs. And before that, I wrote letters to the Wise County Messenger. Even way before that, before I knew what a frack was, people were getting fracked and writing about it.
The earliest reference to fracking I could find was Our Drinking Water at Risk written by Lisa Sumi in 2004.
This report was written by Lisa Sumi, Research Director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP). Lisa Sumi holds a Master of Science Degree in Physical Geography from the University of Toronto, Canada. She has worked on issues related to extractive industries (mining, oil and gas) for seven years
Ah ha! So I asked Lisa if she was The One.
I’ve always been a stickler for proper grammar (before I studied sciences I was a journalism major).
I first started using “fracking” as opposed to “fraccing” or “fracing” when I started writing Our Drinking Water at Risk (2004). At the time, I had seen references to the shortened form of “hydraulic fracture” as being “frac” or “frack.” No matter which form one uses, it makes sense for the present participle of “frac” or “frack” to be fracking.
Here’s what Oxford Dictionaries says about verbs ending in “c”: If the verb ends in -c (e.g. panic), you need to add a -k before adding -ing. And when verbs end in “ck” you get the present participle by adding “ing.”
I didn’t like “fraccing” because at the time, the only word I had seen that ended with “-ccing” was floccing (a term I encountered while doing soil science research). But the root word floc comes from the latin floccus, and is related to terms like flocculent and flocculate, all which have the double c. Fracture comes from the latin root fractus, which does not have a double c, so why would its present participle suddenly get one?
I’ve since found one exception to that rule – the present participle of the verb “sic” is siccing. That just looks wrong to me (although sicking doesn’t look right, either). Regardless, I’m sticking with fracking with a K. And it appears that others are doing so, too.
So there you have it! Proof that we cannot trust the industry with our water because we can’t even trust them with the English language. .
Fraccing = Fray-sing.