OED and The Climate Connection: Greenhouse classes

OED and The Climate Connection: Greenhouse classes

The Climate Connection (#TheClimateConnection) is a new podcast series from the British Council which explores the relationship between the climate crisis and language education. In partnership with Oxford University Press, and featuring a selection of our Oxford English Dictionary editors, the podcast explores the origins of climate-related language, in both English and other languages.


In the fifth episode of the series, OED Editor Rosamund Ions discusses the short history of the term carbon footprint.

Our first evidence for carbon footprint comes from the late 1990s, but it seems to have been popularized around 2005 in a public relations campaign run, ironically, by the oil giant BP. In it, they acknowledged that it was an unfamiliar term: “What on earth is a carbon footprint?” they asked, before going on to provide a definition, and then inviting individuals to calculate their individual or household impact.

Source: Financial Times 10 Nov. 2005 p. 7, via Gale Primary Sources

Some parts of the campaign use text laid out in the shape of a footprint (or more accurately a shoe- or boot-print) to reinforce the metaphor, and perhaps to give the problem a human dimension, or, it might be argued, to deflect it from big corporations on to individuals. Greenwash or not, it seems to have captured the public imagination, because we see the same metaphor occurring in many other languages, for instance Spanish huella de carbono, French empreinte carbone, Italian impronta di carbonio, German KohlenstoffFußabdruck (or CO2-Fußabdruck). 

Source: Financial Times 17 Nov. 2005 p. 7, via Gale Primary Sources

“We find that in the late 20th century this use of carbon starts to become very productive. For example we get carbon emissions, carbon sink, carbon offsetting, carbon tax, carbon-neutral , etc.  And while a lot of compounds like carbon footprint have to do with defining the problems underlying climate change, increasingly we’re seeing coinages referring to possible solutions, for example we’re monitoring terms for new technologies such as carbon capture and carbon scrubbing. Carbon footprint uses another device to convey more meaning in a concise way, because carbon is being used to stand for something like ‘carbon dioxide and other GHGs’, which doesn’t lend itself easily to forming compounds.”


Rosamund Ions, OED Editor

Head to the full podcast to find out more about climate related words that have entered the OED, including carbon footprint and ecological footprint, as well as those that are on our watch-list, such as carbon capture, carbon scrubbing, land footprint, and plastic footprint.

You can listen and subscribe to the podcast in the following ways:

Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts – just search for ‘The Climate Connection’ and subscribe, or paste the RSS feed URL into your podcast platform: https://feeds.captivate.fm/the-climate-connection

Listen on Spotify: http://spoti.fi/3vUC3xp

Listen on Apple: http://apple.co/3eEss8p

Listen on Google: https://bit.ly/3y4gAUG

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For more on climate change research from Oxford University Press, Oxford Open Climate Change is a broad reaching interdisciplinary journal that aims to cover all aspects of climate change, including its impacts on nature and society, as well as solutions to the problem and their wider implications.


The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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