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Earth Day: a world of words

Environmentalism has become something we are all aware of – continuing to work to “cherish our green inheritance”, as the noted naturalist Sir David Attenborough described it – and this is reflected in the changing use of related language.

Eco origins

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records a huge number of terms formed using the combining form eco-. This combining form comes from the first three letters of ecological or ecology; the eco in these words comes ultimately from the ancient Greek οἶκος, meaning house or dwelling. It makes sense: Earth is the single “home” we all share. Later, the eco of ecology and ecological—like parts of many other popular words, such as -gate from Watergate and cyber- from cybernetic—began to be used in combination with other words or parts of words. The result was the creation of a huge swath of new words, each having to do with ecology.

What exactly is ecology, though? Today it is most typically understood to be the study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment, or a political movement dedicated to this; however, its earliest meaning was “the branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment”. The connection between the two seems clear: in studying the relationship between living organisms—specifically, humans—and their environment, it must have been especially apparent that the relationship between humankind and the Earth has not often been mutually beneficial. This knowledge, undoubtedly together with awareness-raising events like Earth Day, led to the re-commissioning of the term ecology as a reference, specifically, to the impact of human activity on our environment. And, as people increasingly began to call for widespread action to impede this impact, ecology became a political movement.

Combining forms: from eco-minded to ecopoiesis

Though the eco- words reflect all of the senses of ecology or ecological, the majority invokes the modern concerns with the effect that human activity has on the environment. The OED entry for the combining form groups all thematically: there is “(having) the attitude denoted by the second element [of each word] toward ecology and the environment”, where eco-minded, eco-consciousness, and ecosavvy are located—that is, eco-consciousness denotes consciousness about ecology, and so forth. Then there is the section of adjectives “denoting intellectual, literary, or artistic works having an ecological or environmentalist theme”, which houses eco-documentary, eco-art, and even eco-thriller. And, as if it’s not clear enough how we now tend to perceive human influence on the Earth, there is a whole section dedicated to uses “denoting (instances of) environmental damage”: eco-calamity, eco-catastrophe, and eco-crisis all belong here. Elsewhere in the OED, we find relatively new coinages such as ecofeminism, or “a philosophical and political movement that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones, regarding both as resulting from male domination of society”; though dating only to 1980, this is a topic that is now commonly covered in college courses, with its own enormous set of critical discussions and readings. Ecotourist, or a tourist who visits areas of ecological interest (especially to help conservation efforts), is even newer, with current earliest evidence from 1985. However, ecopoiesis is the newest eco- word in the OED (in terms of entering the language) at the time of writing, with first use in 1990. Meaning “the establishment of an artificially assembled, self-sustaining ecosystem on a lifeless planet”, ecopoeiesis displays a relatively new trend in current ecological discussions: looking into space for, well, more space—space on distant plants which theoretically could be modified (or terraformed) to make it habitable for life beyond the limitations (and dangers) of Earth.

The power of language

As with any pressing, popularly discussed, and (most of all) highly complex issue, topics such as ecology, conservation, and environmentalism generate legions of new terms. It often seems the more rapidly these words are formed (especially when it comes to prefixes such as eco-, easily applied to almost any word), the faster they lead to new formations and new usages. It follows that this effect leads to another effect: the more words to describe the various facets of such a complicated topic, the more comprehensively the topic may be discussed, and at least in theory, the more efficiently problems may be addressed. This is truly the power of language: it simultaneously reflects and facilitates lasting change. For what it may be worth, we hope this is an encouraging thought for those participating in Earth Day, and for anyone working hard to protect this planet we call home.

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