Sunday, August 01, 2010


…Words strain,
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
- Burnt Norton, T. S. Eliot

I cringe every time I read or hear the word toxic. Once upon a time, I could depend on its meaning, which the Oxford American Dictionary says is
1. Of or caused by poison.
2. Poisonous.
For a bit more background, here’s the definition of toxin, the noun for which toxic is an adjective.
a poisonous substance of animal or vegetable origin, especially one formed in the body by microorganisms.
And a connotation is that a toxin is deadly. Tetanus toxin, for example.

I chose an older source for the definition because I wanted to go back to how I understand the word. Today, for example, the word is thrown around in articles about the dispersant used in the BP Blowout (NYT, LAT), largely because it was used by Representative Edward Markey (D, MA).

I don’t know what he means, and I’m not just being balky. Corexit, the dispersant used, is not of animal or vegetable origin, it’s thoroughly synthetic, and it’s not clear that it’s deadly. So what is it the congressman is trying to say?

Some tests have shown harm to marine life by some components of some versions of Corexit. That seems to be the basis for the congressman’s claims. But “toxic” goes too far for the findings of those tests, as I understand them.

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
- Burnt Norton, T. S. Eliot

I’m not going to defend or attack the use of Corexit. It’s the excessive use of words that bothers me. And other signifiers. Alarms were shut down on the Deepwater rig, which may have contributed to the disaster. But alarms are too often pasted onto a safety program, often by legislators who want a poltical boost, without considering how they should be used. Safety warnings on products likewise. Too many false alarms, and the damn thing is shut off. Stuff on labels tends to be ignored anyway, and if it’s clearly overblown, it’s just ink on paper. That leads to ignoring the real warning signals.

It’s easy to see why toxicis used that way. We have overused it for a long time. Toxic waste, toxic effluent! Anything that might be harmful has the word pasted to it, along with the more figurative uses, which may have been what diluted the word’s meaning in the first place. Toxic talk, toxic behavior!

I’m not sure how many people still feel the connotation of “deadly” in toxic, but it remains strong for me. Perhaps that is part of the reason it is used, to get attention and raise people’s emotions.

It’s time to give it a rest.

1 comment:

Rod Adams said...


Thought provoking post. As an English major, I wish I had written it myself - words really should have meaning that remains no matter who uses them or where they are used.