Word Games: Meltdown

Nuclear" is, to borrow a marketing phrase, a high-impact word. It implies power or destruction on a grand scale, which is strange, given its microscopic origins. The nucleus is the part of the cell that holds most of its genetic material, officially known as an organelle (a word that deserves a tribute all of its own, and a doo-wop a cappella group named after it; seriously, the Organelles - I can hear them now). "Nuclear", though, will forever be associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, images of mushroom clouds and total destruction. Whatever the context - weapon or energy, fission or fusion - the word gives people the jitters.

So when reports filtered through about a possible nuclear "meltdown" at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it was almost too much for the 24-hour news channels. They flashed the word across our television screens in giant block type. The word is a news producer's dream: it must be the closest they can get to the ultimate prize (flashing up "The end of the world is nigh!" accompanied by the shouty bit from Verdi's Requiem).

The news channels could get away with it because meltdown is a technical term and refers, in a nuclear context, to a very specific happening. As the government's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, put it: "If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this dramatic word, 'meltdown'." It's serious and potentially catastrophic, but it's also
a very particular set of circumstances.

Then there's the other sort - the celebrity meltdown, diligently reported by the showbiz press. "So is Cheryl Cole having a binge-eating meltdown?" wonders one blog. "Meltdown" has been translated into an emotional crisis, a kind of amorphous inner collapse. I suppose this can be dangerous, too, but it's not quite the same thing, is it? I wouldn't mind applying the same rules, though. Next time someone claims that Cheryl's having a meltdown we should evacuate LA and douse her with water from a hovering helicopter. That might make us all a little more careful with our words.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?