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A soft touch?

Today's Post column on Iggy and the oilsands is here. A commentator has already derailed another entry to rebut my parenthetical observation that "tar sands" have been the universal technical term for all that goop over the past hundred years:

Oilsands is now the accepted word for the resource NOT tarsands. Yes that was not always the case but terms change—just as rapeseed is now canola and mentally challenged has replaced retarded and imbecile.

The first sentence here is, simply, a naked lie. What he really means to say is that a particular group has decided not to accept the existing term. Not explained: why anyone should give a crap, considering that we have a standing history of educated usage to guide us. Arguments from authority don't carry much weight in disputes over language, especially when, as it is here, that authority is invisible or imaginary.


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Comments (24)


I don't doubt that "oil sands" is indeed an "accepted" usage, perhaps even the commonest accepted usage. But it's this notion that any other usage is thus somehow unacceptable that will drive you up the wall. Very often the commonest accepted usage is not the best, and a sensible man won't use it.

The terms have always been used interchangeably. I'm old enough to remember that the first great conference on the economic potential of the sands (held in Edmonton in '79) was called UNITAR.

Plus, hello, have you ever held a handful of the stuff? It's tar in sand.


Not explained: why anyone should give a crap

Surely you can acknowledge that "tar sands" makes the carbon tainted muck sound dirtier than the more innocuous term "oil sands."

I don't think it's a coincidence that people who denounce the carbon tainted muck almost always use the term tar sands, while those who promote their exploitation use the alternative terminology.


I can't say that I give a crap what it's called - and I also can't see how "oilsands" sounds less sticky and gooey than "tarsands".

I was on the airplane with Michael Ignatieff in August flying out of Fort McMurray and my first assumption was that he was there to take notes and formulate some evil plan to further demonize the west and screw thousands out of a livlihood for political gain. It was informative to me that this would be my first instinct. Based on your article, perhaps his reported stance in favour of punishing terrorists (war on Iraq) and other sort-of conservativish views such as you identify in the article, mean I someday won't have to fear and despise Liberal leadership in Canada.


I can't say that I give a crap what it's called - and I also can't see how "oilsands" sounds less sticky and gooey than "tarsands".

Because the thought of converting tar into gasoline sounds more arduous than simply ripping oil out of sand.

In other words, "tar sands" more accurately reflects the actual process of converting Bituman into useable fuel, whereas the term "oil sands" sort of hides the reality of the process necessary to get the shit out of the ground and into your car.

I'm sure it's not a coincidence that some people call them X and some people call them Y. Still waiting on the "Why I should give a crap" part.


I really wish that people used the term "mines" more often, as in "oil sands mines" or, if you prefer, "tar sands mines." Fewer people run around protesting about Voisey's Bay than Fort McMurray, to my eyes, but they both have tailings and extract stuff from the earth.

Lord Bob:

Mr. Cosh,

"Oilsands" is an obsolete and demeaning term. The proper term in use in all politically correct circles today is "flowers, bluebirds, and happy sunshine sands".

P.S.: Correct me if I'm wrong, but this article has nothing to do with Barack Obama. An editorial oversight, surely?

Gord Tulk:

"a naked lie"?

That's awfully harsh don't you think Colby? I certainly did not mean it as a lie. I would ask you to cite one article from the industry In the past year where the term tarsands was used and oilsands wasn't. Like the medical profession or any other field of expertise changes to terminology are made there before those in the lay world catch on. And you are certainly in the lay world on this topic. And be honest - since you are calling me a liar - you are adhering to the old name in order to stir things up.

Your assumption that lay usage is obliged to follow "the industry" (I assume you mean the industry that extracts oil from the tar sands) is ridiculous. There is no reason the rest of us should flee from an entirely accurate term they may have decided, after a century, that they no longer like (though even that much is not clear). Linguistic authority doesn't work that way. And you certainly don't get to claim that authority for yourself by hinting, like some raging asshole at a dinner party, at some carefully unstated difference in our credentials.

And just by the by, your implicit endorsement of the substitution of "mentally challenged" for "retarded" inadvertently undermines your position, not to mention any claim you might have to be a careful observer of usage. "Retarded" is still widely used in clinical and educational settings, and the preferred euphemism is not "mentally challenged"—a term now mostly used ironically in jokes about assholes who manipulate language for political reasons—but "developmentally disabled".


The province has used the term oil sands since at least the mid-1970s, when AOSTRA was established.

This doesn't mean everyone has to use the term, of course. But from my experience, the term was the most common one, particularly from the mid-90s onward after the National Oil Sands Task Force report and subsequent changes to provincial and federal royalty and tax regimes.

There's been a noticeable upsurge in "tarsands" in the past few years as part of anti-development campaigns. It's a smart strategy, but no more than that. The proponents and opponents of development are each hoping to frame the debate with their term.

From my point of view, "tar sands" does not have an inherent linguistic superiority. Whatever you think a handful of the stuff feels like, the sands are made of bitumen or heavy oil, not tar.

Tim Macneil:

There is no reason the rest of us should flee from an entirely accurate term [the industry] may have decided, after a century, that they no longer like...

And yet, in other contexts, we have done just that.

I don't know quite when or where it happened, nor how, but sometime between 1980 & 2000, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance or NMR machines used in the radiology departments of hospitals all silently got replaced by apparent exact duplicates instead called Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI machines.

I have no doubt some marketing consultancy not unadjacent to the changeover was given a healthy retainer, by complete and unrelated coincidence.

The creators/manufacturers of a product are, to a certain degree, entitled to tinker with its trade name—especially where to do otherwise would be to expose them to unfair commercial disadvantages (or even harm human health; one can easily imagine ill people foolishly refusing to undergo "nuclear" imaging). I take it you're not suggesting that oil companies or "supporters" of the oilpatch are in an analogous position vis-à-vis the tar sands; that, in itself, would add a distinct level of unsavouriness to the supposed effort to rebrand them.

Gord Tulk:

Colby I don't see what's so "unsavoury" about it.


It would be unsavoury because the Tar Sands aren't the oil company's to name. If the Ford Motor Company just started referring to Oakville as "Fordton" because they think it sounds better, that doesn't mean everyone should callit Fordton.


Tar sands are controversial and bad for my suede shoes. I'm investing my RRSPs in PetroSilica, the resource of the future.

P.S. It's BITCH-u-min, motherflippers!

George Skinner:

"Oil sands" is definitely a branding exercise on the part of the oil industry. It's hard to blame them, though: the left wing has a genius for using branding to support their political positions. Orwell wrote an essay about it in the 1940s. Why should the oil industry cede the initiative to their opponents? Just look at what anti-logging advocates managed in the 1990s with their "Great Bear Rainforest" label in BC (try to find that on a map...), not to mention the left's self-branding as "progressive", as if the right wing is bent on dragging the world back into the Dark Ages.

The term "oil sands" has about as solid a pedigree as the alternative, though it should be remembered by us dumb laymen that nobody thought of them as a potential source of oil at all for a long time; the earliest efforts to commercialize them were made by road-surfacing companies. Karl Clark's letters, for instance, routinely speak of the "tar sands"—but the printed collection of them, on the other hand, is entitled Oil Sands Scientist.

If you're following this thread, please note the comment by Martin, stranded higher up in the queue, that had run afoul of the junk filter.

It's kind of like how in Slumdog Millionaire, the screen title refers to "Mumbai" but the story shows the hero's Muslim mom being murdered by a Hindu mob in 1991 that was inspired by the political party that changed the name from Bombay in 1996.


And it occurs to me that, if there isn't a band in Fort MacMurray called The Bitchy Men, then it's past time there was.

Can we just agree that we should all call it "Black Devil Dirt" and leave it at that?

John Thacker:

"Just look at what anti-logging advocates managed in the 1990s with their "Great Bear Rainforest" label in BC (try to find that on a map...)"

Which is why I'm proud that NC has a "Great Dismal Swamp." None of this pansy "wetlands" crap.

I don't like "tar sands" much. It sounds too much like "Tarzan".


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