Extracting natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale rock formation has become a flash point for opponents of hydraulic fracturing, better known by the shorter, more sinister name “fracking.”
In the PR battle over natural gas, the antidrilling “fracktivists” have held the linguistic upper hand since “fracking” carries negative connotations, and even sounds a bit obscene. But rather than avoiding the term, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, has decided to embrace it.
A new ad campaign sponsored by the coalition seeks to rebrand the term, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported late last month. “Fracking is a good word,” says one actor in a commercial. A girl adds, “Fracking rocks.”
Is “fracking” salvageable? A 2011 study by the Pennsylvania public relations firm Gregory FCA Communications found that “fracking” had such a bad rap that the industry would be better off abandoning it. “A better, more positive term is warranted,” wrote the firm’s president, Greg Matusky. “The industry needs to identify negatively charged words and replace them with positive language.”
“Fracking” has a vulgar ring to it, in part thanks to the television sci-fi series “Battlestar Galactica,” which introduced “frack” as an all-purpose swear word in its initial run in the late 1970s. When the show was reintroduced a decade ago on the Syfy Channel, the faux obscenity was updated to the four-letter “frak.”
In the shale-gas industry, “hydraulic fracturing” is usually abbreviated as “frac,” without the “k.” Some see the addition of the “k” as a devious attempt to besmirch the process. “They added the ‘k’ to make it look like a bad word, to diminish what we’re doing,” Larry Fulmer, a superintendent for Cabot Oil & Gas, told NPR earlier this year.
But in fact, when “frac” was first turned into a verb in the 1950s, the spelling of “fracked” and “fracking” cropped up right away, beginning with a 1953 article in the Oil and Gas Journal entitled, “ ‘Fracking’: A New Exploratory Tool.” While some prefer spelling it “fracing,” that only makes it look like it rhymes with “racing” instead of “racking.”
Lexicographers at Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have added entries for “fracking” without noting its negative spin. The Associated Press Stylebook acknowledges that “the industry considers the short form pejorative” but nonetheless finds “fracking” acceptable.
Since it is surely too late to erase “fracking” from the lexicon, could the new ad campaign work? Perhaps: just look at the Obama administration’s measured success in reclaiming “Obamacare.” Consider it the rhetorical version of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em