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Don’t F*ck with Pittsburgh…

February 16, 2011

Frack, that is.

If you’ve been tuned into Pittsburgh local media you’re familiar with the name Marcellus Shale.  There is major disagreement as to whether the Marcellus Shale Coalition should have the legal right to extract natural gas from the area using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or as it is more commonly abbreviated by media sources, “fracking.”  The practice has been hotly contested at a national level, in legal, industrial, and policy-making arenas.

Anti-hydraulic-fracturing activists argue that hydraulic fracturing will pollute our local water supply and lead to unsafe, unhealthy living conditions in Pittsburgh. Those in the natural gas industry argue that the method is viable, safe, and cost-effective. The two sides of the debate often use different strategies of persuasion.

Just looking at how each side uses (or doesn’t use) the term “frack” can tell us something about how those strategies work!  The field of linguistics lends us some useful vocabulary.
So, if the title of this blog post drew you in, you’ve already identified the phonetic association between the first and last letters of “frack” and the first and last letters of a readily identifiable four-letter expletive.  Protesters have used the term “frack” in the exact same phrases one might find that four-letter expletive. For example: “Don’t frack with Pittsburgh!” or “No fracking way!” or “All Fracked Up!”

This association characterizes hydraulic fracturing as exploitative and invasive, but also gives force to anti-fracking language.  There’s a rebellious connotation to such expletives, too – just ask any little kid who is experimenting with curse words at the dinner table. And yet, “frack” does not have the same weight as the original curse word (think “fudge” or “frickin’” here), so activists can wave signs around without worrying about the presence of young ’uns at the rally.

A concept from structural linguistics can help us parse out what protesters do when they assign such double-meaning to the term “frack” – the combination of the term itself and the meanings associated with it.

Paradigmatic association – the relationship between a word and other words that are conceptually or grammatically similar – for example, “Tree” can be differentiated from “Free” just by changing one small sound and “Tree” can be differentiated from “Bush” or “Oak” even though all of these are nouns and denote similar concepts.

At the level of sounds, frack is paradigmatically associated with words with similar structure, but slight phonetic differences, which is why it is so easy to use frack in the same way one would use an expletive – it sounds so much like one!  Paradigmatic associations allow us to be creative with our word use and alter the meaning of a word like “frack” from merely standing in for the term/concept “hydraulic fracturing” to standing in for both hydraulic fracturing and those meanings associated with our special four-letter friend.

Here’s the punch-line: Because there is no official spelling of the abbreviated form of “fracturing,” the spelling choice itself has rhetorical ramifications. Protesters and media sources have embraced the form “frack,” while the industry avoids that spelling in two distinct ways.

Some organizations taking neutral or positive stances on hydraulic fracturing, including the Pennsylvania DEP and Chesapeake Energy, use the spelling “frac” (fracing, fraced).  While this is a more exact abbreviation of the way “fracture” is written, the most intuitive pronunciation of “fracing” would rhyme with “facing.”  It is unlikely that this move will have the effect that Chesapeake might intend, because protesters are using established paradigmatic associations.  To alter the pronunciation of “frack,” at this point, seems abrupt, awkward, and deliberate.  From a rhetorical perspective, this spelling could backfire, if it is used as a pro-hydraulic-fracturing maneuver.

If we read Chesapeake Energy’s promotional material as a response to the predictions and accusations of protesters, the use of the alternative spelling could be read as intentional and thereby potentially manipulative (or, perhaps, it’s the juxtaposition of this spelling and the stock photos of brightly waving American flags, rolling green fields, blue skies, and clean water on their front page…).   In this context, “frac” is not merely an alternative spelling choice.  Activists have utilized the easy paradigmatic association between frack and it’s four-letter-curse-word counterpart – it isn’t spelled “fuc,” after all.  Marcellus Shale Coalition avoids using the term frack/frac altogether… It’s probably better for business if they stick to using the full term “hydraulic fracturing.” In the meantime, let’s hope they don’t “fracture” with Pittsburgh’s healthy water supply.

In you want to know more:

  • The geeked-out background to “sounding like an explicative”:   In the linguistic terminology: the [c] in fracing suggests a ‘sibilant’ sound, as in “sat, stick, cast, etc. and the [ck] or [k] would imply a ‘voiceless stop,’ as in tack, rack, stick or, as most Battlestar Galactica fans will recognize, ‘frak.’  -ck and –k are more common spellings of a voiceless stop in the English language.  This makes ‘frak’ and other terms like ‘freak’ or ‘frick’ a closer paradigmatic relative of ‘frack’ and thereby the real f-word.
  • The linguistic background to words as signs:   For the structuralists, language users give signs like “tree” meaning by differentiating them from other signs at two different levels of association: paradigmatic and syntagmatic. Here, a “sign” can be defined a symbolic stand-in for one or more ideas or objects  (i.e. when I say or write “tree” and point to the white oak in your back yard, the word “tree,” together with the mental image it triggers, represents the actual object).  While I defined paradigmatic above, a syntagmatic association is the relationship between a sign as it is used in a sentence and those signs which are adjacent to it – for example, in the phrase “Don’t frack with Pittsburgh!” it is the difference between the word frack and all of the other words in that particular phrase.   This level of association allows us to make new meanings by inserting the word “frack” into similar phrases in which we might find our four-letter expletive counterpart.  For further reading on structural linguistics turn to Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.
  • For more on the whole fracking issue, there is the anti-fracking documentary Gasland.

Ashley Karlin is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon.

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