With eco-consciousness on the rise, here are some terms you need to add to your environmental vocabulary

The attitude that if the world is destroyed by ecological catastrophe, Mars could one day offer Earthlings a refuge from climate change, is termed “marsification”

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 20 Apr 2023, 4:54 PM

Environmental consciousness has been on the increase globally, and inevitably has infiltrated our language as well with new terms to give us a vocabulary to cope with new ecological challenges.

It’s only in the last couple of decades that we have come to realise that we are all living in the Anthropocene, defined as a geological epoch marked by significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including climate change. Terms like “ecology”, “biodiversity” and “greenhouse gas emissions” are, of course, better known and have been widely in use for a bit longer, but even they were largely unheard of before the 1960s.

Some of the basic environmental vocabulary we all need to have would feature these terms:

• Climate change: the long-term alteration of temperature and typical weather patterns.

• Pollution: the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change.

• Ecosystem: all the plants and animals in a particular area, together with their surrounding environment. The destruction of habitat in a particular area can be termed ecosystem destruction.

• Environmental degradation: the deterioration of the environment through the depletion of resources such as air, water, and soil and the extinction of wildlife.

• Resource depletion: the consumption of natural resources faster than they can be replenished.

• Biodiversity loss: The reduction in the variety and variability of life forms on Earth.

But we have moved beyond the basics to more exotic terms than these. As far back as the 1940s, the author JRR Tolkein, creator of the famous Lord of the Rings, invented the term “eucatastrophe”, which he suggested was a “good” catastrophe. Environmentalists know all about bad catastrophes that can threaten the very survival of the human race — supervolcanoes, nuclear winter, uncontrolled global warming, pandemics, a meteor colliding with the Earth. But what about those environmental disasters that led to a happy development? For example, some environmental catastrophe hundreds of millions of years ago wiped out dinosaurs from the earth. But their extinction led to the survival of mammals and the eventual evolution of human beings. That’s an “eucatastrophe”.

An intriguing pair, Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott, artists who specialise in environmental vocabulary, have spent a decade collecting and creating new words on the environment in the name of what they call the Bureau of Linguistical Reality. But their neologisms are a bit too exotic to catch on easily — terms like “nonnapaura” (derived from Italian, to describe the combination of hope and fear many feel for the future because of the global environmental crisis), “chuco sol” (of El Salvadorian and Korean origin, to describe the “dirty sun” effect of sunsets viewed through polluted air) or “shellaqua” (derived from “shellac” and “aqua”, or water, for the act of covering a once-permeable surface like sand with human-made materials like tar or macadam, increasing the risk of floods). This last word may have the best prospects of catching on, because it can also be used metaphorically: an individual can, after all, shellaqua themselves, becoming impermeable and resistant to new ideas and thinking.

While The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is receiving serious attention, I am not too confident that all their words will enter popular usage. For instance, they have combined pre + euphoria + eau (the French word for water) to come up with “preuphoreau”, for the bodily feeling of sensing a change in the atmosphere because rain is coming. (Again, it can also describe a moment of hopeful anticipation of imminent change). It’s clever, no doubt, but can most people pronounce it?

In the “not-yet-popular” category of neologisms the pair have also coined terms like “sandulate”, a verb which means to understand that the coastline is alive, so we can’t just build solid structures on it but must respect it. The attitude of some people that if the world is destroyed by environmental catastrophe, Mars could one day offer Earthlings a refuge from climate change, is termed “marsification”.

Even if these terms remain obscure, arguably, the phenomenon of environmental neologisms is far from new. As far back as 1909, changes in our environment gave English a new word: in reaction to widespread air pollution, a word was coined that combined smoke and fog into “smog”. So there’s nothing new under the sun, except where the pollution is so bad that you can’t see it.


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