And not a drop to frack.

Dear Word Detective: I heard on public radio this morning that some agency (don’t remember who) wanted to do away with the word “drought” in reports as being too blunt and invoking images of dried riverbeds and the like. Instead they wanted to substitute the phrase “environmental stress due to rainfall deficit.” Surely there’s something to be said for short, concise words (and thereby short, concise sentences and paragraphs) and better communication. I don’t know if detectives can lead a charge against such nonsense, but I hope you will, or somewhere in the future you may get a letter saying “Drought is a funny word. Wherever did that come from?” — Barney Johnson.

Thank you for contacting The Word Detective. Your question is important to us. I believe you have asked “Drought is a funny word. Wherever did that come from?” If this is correct, say “Axolotl.” I’m sorry, I did not understand your response. Due to heavy call volume, all our operators are depressed and don’t feel like coming to the phone right now. Goodbye.

Sorry. I just spent a small lifetime on the phone to Verizon, who had declared our cell  phone to be a non-phone because we never use it. Apparently we were tying up six digits they really, really needed. That made so such sense I told them to forget the whole thing. I still have my flare gun for emergencies.

So, anyway, you’re talking about ESRD, right? Yeah, I Googled it, and that’s the catchy initialism that the Environment Agency in the UK (their EPA, I guess) came up with. According to the BBC, “Environmental Stress due to Rainfall Deficit” has actually been proposed as a new sliding scale to describe the various states of wet and un-wet the UK has been experiencing recently, particularly the fact that a persistent “dry spell” in many places has been punctuated by brief torrential rains. Evidently the EA believes that a yellow alert (or whatever) on the ESRD scale will prove less confusing to the schlubs down at the pub than the “it’s-a-drought-no-wait-it’s-a-flood” stuff they’ve been hearing. Perhaps. Personally, I think all this is precisely what the Bible warned would happen if they continued to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what the real downside would be to just calling the whole shebang a “persistent long-term drought” and trusting the public to understand that just because you get a rainy week doesn’t mean you can turn on the ornamental fountains and lawn sprinklers 24/7.

Did I just type the words “trust the public to understand”? OK, never mind.

But “drought” is a nice, evocative word. It even sounds dry, and the “out” part carries a sense of desolation, deprivation, and two guys crawling through the desert in a New Yorker cartoon. Works for me. The roots of “drought,” which came to us from Old English, lie in the ancient Germanic root “dreug,” which also, fittingly, gave us the English word “dry.” The term itself means “A long period of abnormally low rainfall, especially one that adversely affects growing or living conditions” (American Heritage Dictionary), so it doesn’t mean “no rain at all,” just not enough. Figuratively, “drought” is used to mean a prolonged lack of just about anything you wish there were more of (“End of Albert Pujols’ home run drought is a winner for Angels,” LA Times headline, 5/06/12).

In any case, not to worry, at least about the word “drought.” The best-laid plans of the EA lingo-mice will likely come to naught and “ESRD” will end up tucked away on a dusty shelf alongside “BSE” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), while normal people still say “mad cow disease” and “drought.”

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