I have never quite understood the attraction of the phrase “emergency situation.” How is that different from an emergency? Why waste your breath on the extra four syllables? I suppose it has something to do with people’s desire to use obfuscatory bureaucratese–why say something simply if you can say the same thing in a more obscure and high-falutin’ way? Maybe it also offers an out if the event turns out not to be quite as dire as expected: “I didn’t say it was an emergency; I just said it was an emergency situation.”
My sense was that the phrase caught on in the past 10-15 years, but the Google Ngram for American usage shows it has been on the rise for a long time and actually peaked in the 1980s:
British English shows a similar pattern, but a lower absolute level of usage. I wish there was a way to compare the usage of the phrase against just the word emergency.
Prescriptivists may see this usage as more evidence of the decline and fall of the language. I certainly find it ugly and unnecessary. Maybe that makes me a prescriptivist.
Here is the funniest use of the word emergency I know of, from the 60s movie The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, where the Alan Arkin character is trying to coach the crew of his grounded Russian sub to speak a simple English sentence. I think it might actually be even funnier if he used “emergency situation” instead of “emergency”: