It’s Not a Minecraft Reference?

I heard an interesting term on the radio last week – “urban mining.” It’s used to describe stripping abandoned homes for copper and other metals for sale to scrap metal dealers.

I’m familiar with the process. More so than I’d like, really, because it was a problem in my old neighborhood after many homes were seriously damaged in the 2011 tornado outbreak. There were a couple of people breaking into less damaged homes and cutting lines to water heaters, which they then were intending to pick up with a rented truck. They were among the many jailed for similar activities. (One man’s surname was Lewter. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Debris Removal

This photo of the house next door, taken by Gary Cosby Jr., was part of an Times Daily article about my neighborhood. My daughter found her Twister mat and spray painted “We were hit by Twister” on wood in front of our house. 


Last week was the first time I’d heard this phrase for it, though, and I’m kind of torn about it. It’s creative and a little fun, and it certainly grabbed my attention. But at the same time, I feel like it’s just flippant enough to trivialize an illegal practice that illustrates the poverty and urban decay in some parts of the country.

Now I’m thinking about other terms that have been brought about by the necessity of describing a new or suddenly widespread phenomenon. After all, if you’re going to have to repeat it in the news, studies, stories, etc., it’s much easier to have a term that covers it without requiring full sentences to explain it, and it’s even better if the term is memorable enough to grab attention. I think “urban mining” is well done, as it should be easy to understand with little explanation, especially if it’s used often, and it’s mildly amusing and succinct enough to be memorable. But I also wonder about the effect of normalizing something that should concern us. I can’t decide whether having an apt name makes the situation easier to dismiss, or it being so common that we needed a name for it highlights the problem. My gut feeling is that the latter requires people to stop and change perspective, while the former is the easier and more likely response as people worry about navigating their own busy lives. But I also wonder if it’s possible to assign a more negative connotation with how we talk about it.

I’m interested to find more examples in any language. What are some phrases you know that have been created to describe modern occurrences, particularly sociological issues?  Do you know of any studies or books that address this question?


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