Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The method of oil and gas extraction known as fracking has been in the news for two reasons this week. After a legal challenge to their activities was overturned, a firm that uses fracking to carry out gas extraction from a type of rock called shale started operating near Blackpool on Monday. In related news, three anti-fracking campaigners who had been imprisoned for their activities at the Blackpool site last year were released from prison on Wednesday after serving three weeks of sentences that the court of appeal described as ‘excessive’.

Fracking involves injecting liquid at high pressure into rock that is already split in order to force open the fissures and extract the oil and gas they contain. The technique is controversial both because it can cause earth tremors, as happened in 2011 when a moratorium on the activity was imposed as a result, and is accused of polluting groundwater. Furthermore, the extraction of any more oil and gas is opposed by many who say we should be leaving it in the ground and focusing instead on increasing renewable energy resources.

The technical name for the process is hydraulic fracturing, but the term fracking is vastly more common.  There is a related verb to frack, and someone who fracks is called a fracker. The technical name shows us the word’s etymology, because frack comes from fracture meaning to break or crack, or to cause something to do this. A fracture is, of course, a break or crack in a bone as well as in a hard substance such as rock. If something such as a group fractures it splits, while fractured language is not fluent and is full of mistakes.

I learn from another dictionary that the terms frack and fracking are used as euphemisms for much ruder words, and that their use in this way was popularized by the US television show Battlestar Galactica. Anti-fracking campaigners have exploited this similarity in their slogans, telling fracking companies to frack off, among other things. Here, for those of you who enjoy this kind of thing, is a clip of the sci-fi show’s inventive use of the term.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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