Thursday, April 02, 2009

History of Language: oil and tar

Talking to David Finch, historian of the Alberta oil industry and author of Pumped, an effective handbook to the whole subject, and I mention the tar sands. "You know," he says, "really you should say 'oil sands.'"

There's a language war here. Critics of that petrochemical megaproject around Fort McMurray say "tar sands" and argue that "oil sands" is a euphemism being pushed by the industry. It's not oil in the sands, after all, at best it's stuff you can make oil from.

It's not tar, either, Finch tells me. It's bitumen, and nobody wants to say 'bituminous sands."

Looking a bit further, I find tar comes from pine trees. Those tar pits in Los Angeles full of sabretooth tiger bones -- they should be asphalt pits. Hmm. This is getting technical.

But David describes for me the history of how the name "oil sands" was brought into use: not in the midst of the big developments, but in 1951. It's in his book. He thinks the revival of "tar sands" is mostly a product of the last ten years. He doesn't think it has taken, except specifically with critics of the development.

Persuasive. But not everyone agrees. Andrew Nikiforuk gave an enthusiastic blurb to Pumped, but his own (terrific) book Tar Sands is called ... well, yes.
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