Light, such a wonderful word, meaning both that which illuminates and as a measure of weight. I’ve been feeling both recently. Jan. 20 feels like a special day, a “light at the end of the tunnel” day, and a description of what feels like a lifting of weight off my daily spirits.

It helps that the sun has been shining the last few days, but it’s not just that. It feels like we may be heading into a happy and better new year. Perhaps we will make progress on responding to the climate crisis.

In any case, there has been a rash of “light” news, the kind that not only doesn’t come with a dark cloud but which also might amuse or distract. It’s not trivial; it’s just stuff that feels just right for today — a perhaps brief stall in what has sometimes seemed like a bombardment of news as we await the outcome of today’s events.

Every year in December, generally in year-in-review articles, people come up with words most used in the public sphere. Miriam Webster dictionary for 2020 predictably picked “pandemic,” but also noted a large increase in the usage of “malarkey” after Biden used it in a debate. I can only guess he was appealing to older people like myself from a bygone era, while teasing younger folks to go look up a word that had practically disappeared.

Other authoritative institutions chose words like “lockdown,” “unprecedented,” “social distancing” and “respiratory droplets.”

As you can see, most of the words chosen by institutions are practical and probably do reflect the most usage, which is fine, but I like some of the new words, words never heard before, sometimes describing serious subjects like the climate crisis.

For example, in past years, new words included “pyrocene,” “firenado” and “hotumn” to mark our heating planet.

For 2020, a Grist journalist asked herself the question, “What happens when the climate crisis meets a global pandemic?” She cited a study by Oxford Languages, an outfit that bills itself as “The Home of Language Data,” that found words like ”global warming” plummeted while virus-related vocabulary skyrocketed.

OK, but here are a few entirely new words and the definitions she ascribed to them.

Anthropause, n.: “A period of diminished pollution following the COVID-19 lockdown.” Less travel by car or plane coupled with idled factories resulted in reduced energy usage and an overall decline in global carbon emissions.

People all over the world reported cleaner air, noticed the sky was blue and could hear birds singing again. Many began to wonder why this cleaner, quieter new reality wasn’t possible under non-COVID conditions, perhaps propelling policy in that direction when we get the virus behind us.

Climate arsonist, n.; “A person, sometimes orange-haired, who’s figuratively setting the world on fire.” This was another Bidenism describing the fires in California and elsewhere and asking, “If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?”

Doomer, n. “Someone who is convinced the world is headed straight for all-out collapse.”

According to the article’s author, “If last year was all about ‘OK, boomer’ as the appropriate response to a generation that has failed on climate, this year’s motto could be “OK, doomer” as a reposte to adherents of doomerism, a “mindset that, short of a miracle, problems like climate change, food shortages, refugee crises, and political instability will lead to near-term collapse of civilization — so why even bother to try and stop it.”

Ghost planes, n.: Planes that fly empty. With the virus spreading across the globe not many people were eager to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a closed cabin breathing the same air as complete strangers for hours and hours. But the planes kept flying, “often nearly empty, burning through thousands of gallons of fossil fuel.”

The airlines were in a financial freefall (maybe a poor choice of words but better than “financially crashing”) and they appealed to Congress for a bailout. Congress gave it to them but with conditions, one of which was, according to the article, that they “keep flying to every domestic airport they normally served, no matter if they had passengers.”

This is a head scratcher. Why on Earth would a requirement to keep flying be imposed as a condition of receiving bailout funds? There are many players in the answer to this, and I suspect the complexity is way over my head — pilots, airline terminals, and the employees that work there, to name just a few.

But one thing seems to stand out as being the most important: “slots.” There are more airplanes wanting to land and take off at airports than there is room for them. So it’s kind of like New York cab drivers, you get a medallion, or in this case a slot, and it is worth more than money. Millions. And, if you don’t use it at least 80 percent of the time you can lose it.

So, as light as I want this column to be, this last example serves to remind us of the momentum embedded in our systems and infrastructure that make it possible to make sense to fly planes and burn fuel with no passengers.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on January 20, 2020 | PRINTED in the January 20, 2020 edition on page B2