BP has released an underwater video of the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I heartily recommend it. The film is not exactly feel-good family entertainment (more at the searingly depressing end of the spectrum), but it's fascinating. And makes you wonder, as you watch, wincing through your fingers, about the word "spill" in the context of this accident.

Spill, for me, relates to milk. There's no point crying over it, as the saying goes. (Who would cry over spilt milk, just out of interest? Wimps.) It's a minor event, a dribble rather than a dousing - a mishap, not a major-league catastrophe. Which is why it seems a strange way to describe potentially the worst oil disaster the world has ever suffered.

If you watch the film, you'll see oil rushing out of a broken pipe in great convulsing waves, as though it can't fill the sea fast enough, expanding and multiplying outwards and upwards. That's not a spill. That is an absolute drenching, a first-degree balls-up of the highest order. Puny little spill is never going to suffice.

Nor, I'll have you know, is it a leak - the other industry-favoured word. A leak is what a roof does: you put a bucket underneath and that's the end of it.

Or it's what water bottles do in my bag apparently to spite me, destroying electronic items and ruining the miscellaneous but vital bits of paper I am invariably yet pointlessly carrying around. It is not, repeat not, an adequate word to describe thousands of barrels of oil surging into the sea, blighting the coast, ruining wildlife and the livelihoods of thousands of people.

It suits BP to use such language, I suppose. It wants to seem in control, powerful, cool-headed. Its chief executive, Tony Hayward, talked about the "armada" of ships and "air force" of planes that were helping out. Look at those flexing verbal muscles! And the failure of the firm's "large dome" - a huge box to trap the oil - offered excellent "real-time learning". Oh well, that's all right, then. As long as you're learning, in real time no less, everything will be absolutely fine.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next