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Wombling free: what does Wimbledon have in common with the language of sustainability?

Wimbledon – that fortnight of lush green grass, strawberries, and tennis. Mention Wimbledon to a British person above the age of 30 and they are likely to mention something else – Wombles.  For the uninitiated, the Wombles are a group of creatures who live in an underground burrow on Wimbledon Common and who, as the theme tune to the television series says, enjoy ‘making good use of the things that they find, things that the everyday folk leave behind’. In other words, the Wombles were eco-warriors, a good twenty years before the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) first citation for the word. They recycled things, they tidied up after litterbugs, and they set a good example long before it became fashionable.

But as we have taken more notice of our surroundings and the concept of climate change, our language has done the very same thing: there has been an upsurge in vocabulary to do with environmental factors over the last 40 years or so. A particularly prevalent example is the combining form –eco. The OED shows that since the late 1960s, there have been a great number of words formed around this subject.  Some denote environmental damage (like eco-disaster), some denote people or activities dedicated to opposing damage to the environment (like ecofreak or ecoactivist), and some deal with the promotion of environmental conservation (such as eco city  or eco car). There’s even an adjective eco; well you certainly can’t get much more eco than those Wombles.

Keep on sustaining

From the 1980s onwards, there was a development in the history of the word sustainable. As well as meaning ‘capable of being maintained at a particular level’, it began to be used to refer to areas of activity which tried to minimize environmental degradation. This spawned a number of now-familiar compounds, like sustainable architecture, sustainable energy, and sustainable transport. In fact, sustainable energy is the earliest use of this particular sense, having first appeared in print in 1976.

One previous careful owner

The ubiquity of the charity shop on almost any high street demonstrates that second-hand goods are big business, although the use of second-hand as an adjective predates any charity shop that I know of, going back to the 17th century. And surely it shows good ecological acumen not to throw things out, but to allow others to also enjoy them (and make a little money for a good cause or two). For some, however, the idea of second-hand sounds a little shabby. If you can relate to that, then perhaps you would prefer the more euphemistic pre-owned which has been in use in this sense (chiefly in North America) since the 1930s. If that still doesn’t sit well with you, how about the more celebratory pre-loved? It may not have as long a pedigree, dating back only as far as the 1970s, but it might just sound that bit more appealing.

Haven’t I seen you in that before?

According to the OED, we’ve been recycling since the 1920s, although in this sense it meant ‘to return to a previous stage in a cyclic process’. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the word was applied to the idea of converting waste into a reusable form. And it seems we’ve never looked back. It has gone on to denote using something in a slightly different form, a sense often used by one politician when accusing another – of differing political persuasion – of ‘recycling policies’. We’ve even seen numerous outings of late in journalese with writers alternately praising or condemning the Duchess of Cambridge for recycling her outfits (in my house, it is called ‘wearing an outfit more than once’).

A gift that keeps on giving

Perhaps the ultimate in recycling is the concept of regifting. It not only saves you money, but perhaps that gaudy vase that you wouldn’t give houseroom to would be just the ticket for your aunt or best friend. The Wombles would surely be proud.

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