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Ground Water Science - Language Fashion Statement: 'Ground Water' - One Word or Two?

With a memo dated March 26, 2009, William M. Alley, Chief, U.S. Geological Survey Office of "Groundwater" declared a change in the USGS 35-year-old policy that ground water is two words (water with an adjective). We were alerted to this by an item posted on the LinkedIn Hydrogeology Group forum that linked to an item on Michael (Aquadoc) Campana's WaterWired blog. He also weighed in on the one-word or two debate back in 2008, with some good advice (don't sweat it, be consistent) and background.

This topic does seem to be something to just let go, not to waste words or passion about, but yet, it sticks in my craw as we say.  I have long preferred two words and we use Ground Water Science as our brand.

Dr. Alley states: "Language evolves, and it is clear that the one-word spelling of groundwater has become the preferred usage both nationally [ed: never mind decades of NGWA use of two words] and internationally. The one-word spelling has been used by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary since 1998. Most water-resources publications also use the one-word spelling, as do many technical groups, such as the National Research Council. With the emphasis on interdisciplinary science, many USGS scientists who are not specialists in the field commonly use the one-word form, as increasingly do many hydrologists within the Water Resources Discipline.

"The term surface water has not seen the same language simplification that has occurred with the term “groundwater.” “Surface water” continues in the English language universally spelled as two words. Use of the two terms together spelled as “groundwater and surface water” has become common usage."

Let's break this logic down...

1) The ongoing inability of the ground-water professions and trades to control the terminology

"The one-word spelling has been used by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary since 1998. Most water-resources publications also use the one-word spelling, as do many technical groups, such as the National Research Council. With the emphasis on interdisciplinary science, many USGS scientists who are not specialists in the field commonly use the one-word form, as increasingly do many hydrologists within the Water Resources Discipline."

So, a) a committee of word scholars for a dictionary, who could not likely discuss ground water with any certainty, and b) nonhydrogeologist technical groups define our terms for us. He forgot the Society of Petroleum Engineers, who have long used "groundwater". This is like the whole "we dug a well" thing, when wells have been drilled for 150 years. If you correct someone, they say "whatever". Or "iron bacteria" - do they have little Tin Man plates? SPE and its oil and gas colleagues make a lot of work for our environmental sectors, so I suppose we should listen.

This seems to be "group think" (or is that "groupthink"?). Why do engineers and nonhydrogeologists get to define our internal terminology? Why don't they ask us? Well, the answer they get is inconsistent, because ground-water people do not unite on anything. It's not in our Meyers-Briggs personality profile to do so. So a bunch of wonks, chemists, engineers, and English Majors gets to define our term and we let them.

The NGWA just wrote its own well construction standard after decades of letting the AWWA do it for us.

We Americans have a sometimes infuriating (but sometimes right-thinking) tendency toward exceptionalism, going our own way, regardless of what the world thinks (thus our use of the traditional measuring system). We encourage thinking for oneself: The old motherly advice "If everyone told you to drive off a cliff, would you do it?" seems to apply. What happened to that spirit?  

2) It's "groundwater" because early ground-water work was done by Germans, who used the term grundwasser. This is natural. This is what you do in German, run words together to make modified technical terms. The default in English is to use separate words, except where we don't because English happily borrows from everywhere.

3) How's that again?

Dr. Meyer writes: "The term surface water has not seen the same language simplification that has occurred with the term “groundwater.” “Surface water” continues in the English language universally spelled as two words. Use of the two terms together spelled as “groundwater and surface water” has become common usage."

Now that is a Jon Stewart Daily Show moment, if we could get them to care. No one can defend that statement as logical. That logic has been poked for years. You can say it is a preference and he's the boss. There is no reasoned answer except that "The English language is not logical."

4) Can't quite get away from it, can you?

I see that as of now, the abbreviation for the USGS Groundwater Resources Program is still GWRP and "GW" is used as a letter abbreviation for the underground water, instead of "G". Of course "G" is taken by the beverage formerly known as Gatorade. Maybe they could use G with a swish through it instead of G with a lightning bolt.

5) There is an argument that the public is confused when we use two different styles.

Are people really so confused as that? Or is this our only problem? Remember, they dig wells and hire water witches.

6) Why don't we just go the whole way?

Why don't we follow the majority of English users worldwide and call it the Groundwater Resources Programme and abstract our groundwater from a bore, ship water in lorries, turn bolts with spanners, and join organisations (with an 's')? 

They can do what they want. My mother tongue is American English, that fascinating, colorful, descriptive communication tool. As for me and my house, it is "ground water" (and "fresh water") until they pry the laptop (notebook, mobile device) out of my cold dead hands. We insisted on and were granted permission by CRC Press (default style is "groundwater") to use the two-word form in our 2009 work, Sustainable Wells. When I write for an organisation that uses one-word style, their technical editors can fix it.

Et tu National Ground Water Association? Update - why am I getting emails from the NGWA with ground water rendered as one word? Because they caved in, too. The NGWA has a conference on groundwater called the Ground Water Summit and we still have Ground Water Week. I figure a few years will have people regaining their senses.

Why am I spending time on this? I don't know, it's just so... so...