OED and The Climate Connection: Environmental writes
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 ninth and final episode of the Climate Connection podcast series, our involved editors share some of the words that have especially captured their interest.
A word I find really interesting is degrowth – this isn’t in our dictionaries yet, but we’re currently working on it.The word degrowth is part of a movement to reframe how we think about growth and development. On the face of it degrowth is a very straightforward formation, meaning the opposite or reversal of growth, and we’ve found evidence dating back to the 19th century in this general sense – usually with negative connotations. But in the 1970s, various intellectuals started using the French word décroissance – meaning degrowth – in critiquing the ideology of economic growth and its consequences for the environment. As this has become an international discussion, the English word degrowth has followed suit. It is increasingly used in positive ways, and degrowth advocates – or degrowthers – express the view that reducing economic output and consumption is compatible with, and, indeed, ultimately essential for, wellbeing and prosperity. As Greta Thunberg said in her statement at the UN climate change summit in 2019, we can’t carry on with our “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”.
Kate Wild, OED Editor
A new climate change-related word that caught my attention is morbique, which refers to the morbid desire to travel to places threatened by climate change before it’s too late. The word combines the adjective morbid with the –que ending usually found in French loan words in English such as antique, boutique, and mystique. Although morbique is not yet in widespread use and may never be so, I still find it very interesting, as it shows our tendency to borrow foreign words or invent foreign-sounding words to express emotions that are new to us or that we find difficult to describe—for example, schadenfreude, hygge, saudade, or more recently, a word we’ve mentioned in this podcast series: flygskam. The existential threat of climate change provokes new, complex feelings that can be hard for us to put into words, so we borrow or coin new ones.
Danica Salazar, OED World English Editor
Greenwash was coined in the 1980’s as a play on the word whitewash, which is a much older word. Whitewash is a relatively cheap type of white paint used to cover the outside (and sometimes inside) of buildings. It’s not permanent and can rub off on your clothes, so it needs to be regularly reapplied. This usage carries negative connotations – it implies that whatever faults or errors you’re covering up are still there below the surface, you haven’t really gotten rid of them.
And this brings us back to greenwash. Companies, groups, or individuals that portray themselves or their products as ‘green’, that is, environmentally responsible or causing minimal or no harm to the environment, are increasingly under scrutiny. If they’re found to also engage in environmentally unsustainable practices, then they may be accused of greenwashing. Fortunately, there seems to be an increasing awareness of greenwashing, and less of a tolerance for it. Hopefully companies will respond by becoming truly ‘green’, not just ever more greenwashed.
Rosamund Ions, OED Editor
A monkey wrench is a type of adjustable spanner, a handy addition to every toolbox: the noun is recorded in the OED from the early 1800s. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was also being used figuratively in phrases like to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery, which means “to cause trouble or confusion” or “to interfere disruptively”. Being used in this phrase seems to have given the monkey wrench a bad reputation as a troublemaker or agent of sabotage. This is most obvious when the noun comes to be used as a verb (an etymological process we call conversion). By 1912 “to monkeywrench” was being used to mean “to disrupt, obstruct, or spoil” something.
And this, at last, brings us to the green credentials of monkeywrench: from the early 1980s, the OED documents the verb used specifically in the context of environmental activism, meaning “To sabotage, disrupt, or damage as a form of environmentalist protest.” Our earliest evidence for this sense is implied in the noun MONKEYWRENCHING: in 1983, an article in the LA Times quotes a founder member of Earth First!—an early direct-action environmental protest group—using monkey-wrenching as a word for their tactics of sabotaging industrial sites and machinery. This ecological turn in the semantic history of the verb MONKEYWRENCH didn’t come out of nowhere. It was motivated by the title of American author Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which follows a group of ecologically-minded misfits as they fight to stop developers destroying America’s endangered desert regions by destroying their bulldozers and trains. And when it came to choosing the group’s logo, the members chose a cross made of two tools: a stone hammer and—you guessed it—a monkey wrench.
Tania Styles, OED Editor
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