Tracking the history of the future through words

Tracking the history of the future through words

A historical lexicographer’s perspective on reviewing the OED’s coverage of vocabulary relating to climate change and sustainability.

In 2021, the OED embarked on a project to broaden and review its coverage of vocabulary relating to climate change and sustainability. I’d been feeding my own eco-anxiety by learning more about these topics for some years before I proposed that the OED conduct a review of its coverage. I knew that our New Words team had, over the course of the last 30 years or so, researched and covered a lot of the best-known terms, such as global warming and carbon offsetting, but this is a rapidly changing area of vocabulary. With the world spotlight coming to rest on the UK later this year at the UN climate summit in Glasgow (COP26), it is important to continue to monitor developments in this epoch-defining nexus of problems.

When OED editors are investigating the way a word or sense has been used over time, we look for examples of contextual and dateable evidence in our internal files and databases, as well as in external databases, websites, libraries, and archives.

We tend to think of climate change and sustainability as very contemporary issues, but what was interesting about researching some of the terms in this year’s update (as well as revisiting those we had already covered) was being able to put them into a historical perspective and seeing just how far back some ideas could be traced though the vocabulary, as a few examples will show.

Climate change

In her research for the Climate Connection podcasts, OED science editor Trish Stewart found that the first use we have traced of the term climate change is in an 1854 article in a scientific journal. It reveals that even then there was disagreement over whether humans could cause changes in climate. The paper goes on to suggest that they may be caused instead by ‘the changeable position of the magnetic poles’.

Source: U.S. Magazine of Science, Art, Manufactures, Agriculture, Commerce and Trade 15 Dec. 1854, p. 234. Via HathiTrust Digital Library.

Climate emergency

This term climate emergency was chosen as Oxford Languages’ Word of the Year in 2019, and statistics show that there was a big jump in usage during that year. While researching this term we found what looked like a surprisingly early example from 1975, in which deforestation was linked to climate change. On closer inspection there was no link to arguments about global (as opposed to regional) warming, so this quotation is presented for information only, but it was heartening to see evidence of such ecological debate in a US newspaper at this date.

Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune 25 May 1975, p. 64. Via Newspaper Archive.

Climate strike

We are all familiar with the climate strikes occurring in response to the climate emergency, and the best-known climate striker is of course Greta Thunberg. But her 2018 skolstrejk (‘school strike’, a term which we are continuing to monitor in English) wasn’t the first instance of this form of activism. We tracked down a 2014 proposal to stage a climate strike:

Source: The Popular Resistance, 24 Sep 2014. Via Wayback Machine.

As sometimes happens in our research, however, there were some red herrings along the way, not linked to climate change and therefore not included among our quotations. For instance, in 2012 the shutdown of north-east US states in the face of Hurricane Sandy was dubbed a “climate strike” because it was being likened to a general strike:

Source: Films for Action

Carbon footprint

The climate emergency, of course, has many of us thinking about our own impact on the environment, particularly our carbon footprint. An examination of the quotation evidence for carbon footprint revealed that although not coined by them, it was, surprisingly, the oil giant BP who pushed the term to prominence through their use of it in a 2005 PR campaign.

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


Overconsumption was a term that was already covered by the OED, but in our update, the term has now been antedated by more than 150 years. Our research this year revealed that this word, now much used in discourse on sustainability, can be traced back as far as John Locke, writing in 1695 on the topic of money:

Source: John Locke Further Considerations regarding raising the Value of Money (1695), p. 39. Via Early English Books Online.


Our work on this update led us to investigate not just words related to the causes of climate change, but also the solutions. This year that we added a new sense of windmill, in the sense of a wind turbine used to generate electricity (as opposed to the more traditional type used for tasks such as grinding grain or pumping water). This unassuming word led me to the fascinating story of the Fram, a Norwegian ship used in the late 19th century to explore those very polar regions that are now threatened by global warming. Because of the length of the voyages and the lack of opportunity for restocking, the ship was fitted with a windmill to supply electricity for lighting on board. I was happy to be able to include a quotation showing this early use in our entry, but sorry not to have also been able to include a picture!

Image of the Fram with wind turbine set up. Source: Treehugger/Public Domain

So, did this work do anything to solve the eco-anxiety that prompted it? Well, while I’ve been dismayed at what the historical research revealed about missed opportunities and unheeded prophecy, I’ve been delighted to have found out more about just how many people are involved in innovation and adaptation. And it was great to have contributed towards OUP’s educational mission by supplying material for school lesson plans (and meeting local secondary school teachers to discuss these) using our entries as starting points for discussion of the issues, the possible solutions, and prompting critical thinking among the generation who will be most affected by climate change. We were also very pleased to have been invited by the British Council to contribute to their podcast series ‘The Climate Connection’ where we were able to explore some of these ideas still further and potentially reach, through worldwide teachers of English, a still wider audience.

Further reading:

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