OED and The Climate Connection: Present tense

OED and The Climate Connection: Present tense

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 editors, the podcast explores the origins of climate-related language, in both English and other languages.

In the eighth episode of the series, OED Science Editor Trish Stewart discusses the term fossil fuel, and how it’s meaning has changed throughout history.

When we hear the word fossil, we tend to think of petrified dinosaur bones, that is, bones which have turned into stone. However, the origins of the term have nothing to do with dinosaurs at all. In fact, the word was used long before humans knew what dinosaurs are.  The word fossil was first used in the early 17th century to mean ‘a rock or mineral substance dug out of the earth’. Therefore, any object which was removed from underground could be described as a fossil. A 1606 entry in the OED talks of the ‘mines of metals and fossils’, and lists iron and lead as different kinds of fossils. This usage dies out in the first half of the 19th century, and is replaced by our current understanding of the word.

It’s only in the late 19th century that fossil fuel comes to be applied to petroleum, oil, and natural gas, rather than just different types of coal. These are all substances that are found in the earth’s crust, can be used as a source of energy, and are formed as a result of geologic processes acting on the remains of organic material, such as algae, plankton, bacteria, and plants. 

Fossil fuels still provide up to 85% of the world’s energy. But it’s becoming ever clearer that their usage needs to be limited if we want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. The proportion of energy produced by renewable sources, such as wind, water, and the sun, is increasing as a result. Usage of the term ‘fossil fuel’ hasn’t decreased, in fact, it’s more common than ever before. However, the contexts in which we discuss fossil fuels have changed. Nowadays it’s used more frequently with words like ‘divestment’, ‘transition’, and ‘phasing out’.

Trish Stewart, OED Science Editor

Head to the full podcast to find out more about climate related words that have entered the OED, including the full history of fossil fuels.

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

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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.