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Word Games: "Drought"

Sometimes, a word stops working. It’s not the word’s fault, it’s ours, trying to shoehorn an old word with new meaning when it clearly doesn’t fit.

There are obvious reasons why “drought” has sputtered to a halt and broken down: the word conjures images of cracked earth and cattle carcasses. It comes from the old English drugað, meaning drought, dryness, desert. As we look out of our windows at perpetual rain, swollen rivers, luminous greenery, we don’t see dryness or desert: we see England, verdant and dripping and sodden.

The drought, strange as it seems, is made worse by all the rain, because the earth is hard and compacted and the water has nowhere to go apart from into people’s houses to ruin their alphabetised record collections and new carpets. There’s nothing that tickles the pedantic joke-smith more than the notion of a flood in a drought. Only in England, they’ll say, rolling their eyes, shaking their head. How can this be a drought, they’ll ask – before blaming the council. Is it beyond the realms of imagination to understand that if no rain has fallen for a very long time, a week or two of downpour doesn’t necessarily solve everything immediately? Nature plays a trickier game than that and she’s bigger than us; bigger, even, than the mighty Environment Agency, if you can believe it.

Evidently, we need a new word. A word that captures the particularly poignant state of affairs when we don’t have enough water in the ground or in our reservoirs and yet seem to have a limitless amount of it descending from the sky. We need Shakespeare back – or, given the unlikelihood of that happening, we need, perhaps, a word laureate, with a similar brief to a poet laureate, who in times of national need can invent an appropriate new word. Think of all the things we’ve needed new words for recently: the very particular form of patronising bluster that Cameron dishes out in PMQs; the look on James Murdoch’s face as he has yet another inexplicable but oddly convenient memory loss; the nauseous feeling in your stomach when you’ve spent too long trawling the Daily Mail website. And we need a new word for drought. The word’s a failure, a joke, a laughing stock. Poor drought.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue