Dear Umbra,

Surely you must have noticed that ubiquitous cliché of environmental reportage: the alarming rate. Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, coral reefs are being destroyed at an alarming rate, global warming is increasing at an a.r., and so forth. Clearly, the use of “alarming rate” is itself growing at an alarming rate. Do you have any idea where this particular phrase originated? How can we express our distress at environmental statistics without having to resort to clichés?

By the way, I am not an English teacher.

Abigail Wright
Boulder, Colo.

Dearest Abigail,

Thank you for your question, which tickles me pink and warms the cockles of my heart. I have a few pearls of wisdom on the topic, though little in the way of etymology.

The storm before the calm.

Photo: iStockphoto.

While Grist strives to avoid such canned phrasing in its reporting, even we have succumbed, as this pre-made expression is invitingly handy — and not only in environmental journalism. All sorts of rates appear to be alarming: housing prices, uninsured children, bunions.

Before I spin off into my happy world of linguistic bombast, I will attempt one defense of this phrase’s usage among scientists: scientific findings are rarely conclusive. Scientists are hard pressed to say, “this is definitively terrible,” so they report instead on trends. And in the natural sciences, the trends are — well, they look bad.

With non-scientists, the usage is less excusable. Of course, all of these environmental problems are ramping up way too quickly. Certainly the increase in polar melt is upsetting and disturbing, a cause for action. But when everything is “alarming,” few of us hear the news as an alarm. More like a dull hum. When was the last time we felt truly alarmed, in the sense that an emergency was occurring? When was the last time anyone behaved as if an alarm were ringing?

Compare and contrast: When a fire alarm rings, the people dedicated to putting out fires — this is their job, funded by taxes and considered a vital civic service — leap into action. The fire alarm trumps normal business operations and traffic signals. Everyone clears the way, and the fire is extinguished. It is not left to smolder, or partially burn at a smaller level. The fire department does not evaluate fires based on whether rushing the truck through traffic will hinder economic progress. It does not (we hope) choose to put out fires only in rich neighborhoods. An alarm means everything is put on hold, and the problem is fixed. Obviously, environmental problems are not generally considered alarming in this sense.

There is another meaning of alarming, which is forecasting danger. Using that meaning, “alarming rate” could also read “rate that indicates certain danger approaches.” This guides us, I believe, in our own future linguistic choices, and perhaps even in our actions. We can all endeavor to use more descriptive techniques, replacing “global warming is occurring at an alarming rate” with “Pacific islanders have had to relocate because of rising sea levels. If we ever needed a sign that global warming is happening, I feel satisfied with this one.” Then we can plan a specific response: “I am going to get my personal carbon emissions down by 10 percent this year, and see what I can do to support wind power. We are in too much danger for me to sit around and gripe.”

The house is on fire, people. Stop talking about it and do something.

Philosophically,
Umbra