An extension of a federal highway program passed the House recently, over the objections of some Democrats. “Even as they were approving the measure in an anti-climatic voice vote, Democrats sharply criticized Republicans for not accepting a two-year, $109 billion version of the transportation measure the Senate had approved on a bipartisan vote earlier this month,” one news report said.
Had the highway bill included provisions for unfettered carbon dioxide emissions, the vote might indeed have been considered “anti-climatic.” But instead it was “anti-climactic,” meaning something of a letdown after all the fuss the Democrats had raised. That dropped “c” made a big difference.
“Climatic” is the adjectival form of “climate,” while “climactic” is the adjective for “climax.” That they are frequently confused should surprise no one. Interestingly, “climactic” seems to be used more when “climatic” is needed than vice versa. But when the prefix “anti” is added, with or without a hyphen, “anticlimatic” is misused in the place of “anticlimactic” more than the other way around. Of course, few people would say they were against climate, so “anticlimatic” is rarely used all by itself.
Garner’s Modern American Usage says that the use of “climatic” when “climactic” is meant is common enough to have reached Stage 2 on the Language-Change Index, meaning it is unacceptable, but not everyone knows that. And while we’re at it, a “crescendo” is not “climactic.”
Once upon a time, “climactic” was an outcast, shunned by grammarians as inferior. Instead, they preferred “climacteric,” which The Oxford English Dictionary traces to the early 17th century. Later, “climactical” took over; though the OED says its first use, in 1860, was as a humorous nonsense word, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has listed “climactical” as an alternative to “climactic” since its inception in the 1960s.
Garner’s says “climacteric” fell “into disuse as a needless variant of climactic,” and few dictionaries have listed them as synonyms since at least the mid-1960s.
But “climacteric” still has some uses. For one, it means a critical period in life when major changes in health might take place; menopause is referred to as “climacteric” for women. And some fruits are “climacteric”: They can be picked unripe and allowed to ripen through their own emissions of ethylene gas. In some ways, their own “climatic” conditions create “climactic” changes.
If you’ve ever put a banana in a paper bag only to find it has turned to mush a day later, you’ve experienced “climacteric” change.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: climate, climax, grammar, language, terminology, usage