The “climate crisis” entered the Oxford English Dictionary
As once green forests turn to charred remains and glaciers melt to reveal barren mountain sides, the effects of climate change on the landscape are hard to ignore. But there are also less obvious results, as our conversations adjust to a rapidly changing climate, introducing new words.
In a special update this month, the Oxford English Dictionary examined the scope of this “rapidly evolving vocabulary domain” encompassing words and phrases like eco-anxiety, net-zero, and climate strikes. The editors of the dictionary have updated old entries and added new ones ahead of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland next week, where world leaders will meet to discuss their climate commitments. Among the new entrants: global heating, food insecurity, and climate crisis.
The update reflects the urgency and often complicated emotions people feel when faced with rising seas, worsening flooding and warmer temperatures. The editors chose eco-anxiety – “apprehension of current and future damage to the environment” – to make its debut in the dictionary, a signal of the psychological assessment of climate change. According to Google Trends, search interest in climate anxiety has increased 565% in the past year.
Even the name of climate change itself has undergone some tweaking as people have started to use more intense language to describe what they see happening. The phrase climate crisis, which first appeared in the dictionary this month, became 20 times more popular from 2018 to 2020, and climate emergency increased 76 times, according to the OED. The phrase Greenhouse effect, popular in the 90s, fell by the wayside; once common global warming also gradually fell out of favor.
Connoisseurs of the language love the Oxford English Dictionary because it attempts to trace words back to their origins and documents the evolution of their meanings over time. Today, the expression climate refugee refers to someone who has been forced to relocate in response to rising sea levels, forest fires, drought, or other environmental disasters. But the OED places climate refugeeThe entry of into the lexicon in 1889, when the expression was a derogatory name for someone who has moved somewhere for a milder or more pleasant climate. (“He is a climate refugee from the freezing east and seeks a home under the radiant southern California skies,” read a 1911 Indiana newspaper article.)
Although the dictionary update does include some drawbacks, including mass extinction – it also reflects a growth spurt in solutions. Words related to electric vehicles gain traction as drivers talk about smart charging their vehicles to optimize their autonomy and bring range anxiety that the battery will run out before the end of their journey.
Sentences renewable energy and fossil fuels are both increasingly used, according to the OED. However, words used alongside fossil fuels are becoming increasingly negative in tone (cession, gradual elimination, and transition), reflecting the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In what could cause a setback in chemistry lessons for some, the OED has decided that CO2 – aka carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas that heats the planet – deserved its own entry, as people started throwing it away in the same flippant way they talk about H2O.