Six lessons etymology can teach us about tackling climate change

by Matthew Cockram - Runner-up in the University of BirminghamStudent Climate Change Writing Competition 2021

The IPCC Report of 2018 called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in all aspects of society” in order to keep global warming to below 1.5°C (Gabbatiss2018). For this to happen, I’d argue environmental reform must be as much a bottom-up approach as a top-down one; it must start with individuals asking what “aspects of society” they have the power to change. As an environmental poet, I approach climate change not just as a political and scientific crisis but as a communications crisis as well. A year ago, I began researching the history of words (etymology) to see what insight they might provide for us today. Here are six things I have learned so far:

1. We need to talk about it.

The word ‘bear’ comes from the Proto-Germanic *bero, but that may not have been its original name. Some ancient tribes are believed to have ritually switched from using the word arktos to *bero (which means “brown”) out of fear that saying the creature’s real name might summon it. However, through the northern constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (“the great bear” and “the little bear”), the word arktos ultimately survived in the words “arctic” and “antarctic” (Harper 2021). Recently I spoke to the poet Katie Hale, who had just returned from an exhibition in Antarctica. The scientists she travelled with, who were recording the effects of climate change in the region, urged her to address the rapid disappearance of sea ice in her work. They knew that the more we talk about the arktos, the more chance we have of summoning it back.

2. Language reminds us what we have lost and are losing.

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote “as a species, we will not save what we do not love, and we rarely love what we cannot name” (Hamilton, 2021). The etymology of the word “penguin” provides an example of this. “Penguin” originally referred to a now-extinct species of bird, closely related to the puffin that existed throughout the Northern Hemisphere as recently as 200 years ago. These penguins (also known as “great auks”) looked so similar to the penguins of Antarctica that they were referred to interchangeably. Consequentially, when the original bearers of that name went extinct, they also all but disappeared from public memory (Pavid 2021).In 2007, dozens of nature words (“otter”, “acorn”, “wren”) were removed from The Oxford Junior Dictionary and replaced with words like “broadband” and “voicemail.” Macfarlane collaborated with the poet Jackie Kay to produce a collection of acrostic poems, The Lost Words (2017), which aimed to rekindle interest in the replaced entries. Since its publication, The Lost Words has been adapted into theatre, film, music, card games, and puzzles. It has been used as an aid in classrooms and dementia hospices, and become the inspiration of a tree-planting campaign (‘The Lost Woods’). Through grassroots fundraising efforts, there is now a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, secondary and special school in Scotland, as well as many counties throughout Wales and England. In short, this simple reminder of the names of natural things has become a rallying point for their celebration and protection (Hamilton 2021).

3. The wrong words can be violent.

The right representation is vital. The right whale gained its name because it was the ‘right’ kind of whale to be harpooned. Its name marked it as a target, and it was almost hunted to extinction before international whaling laws were brought into place (National Geographic 2021). Other whales such as the Minke whale and the Bryde whale were named after prominent whalers, which again reflects and perhaps contributed to the instrumentalist attitude humans have historically taken towards these species. I mention this because the words we use matter: ‘Global warming’ or ‘climate breakdown’, ‘habitat’ or ‘timber’, ‘activist’ or ‘terrorist’ - how we name things affect show we act towards them. Global attitudes towards whaling shifted dramatically after the release of the album Song of the Humpback Whale in 1970, which arguably spawned the ‘Save The Whales’ movement. It enabled humans to stop seeing whales as distant natural resources but instead as beautiful, intelligent creatures capable of culture (Lewis2020). Humpback whales are one of several species in this article associated with Antarctica. In including them, I am conscious that environmental communicators have often focused on the impact of climate change on such species instead of its impact on humans in the Global South. To me, however, the story of the humpback whale is an argument to buck that trend. Having good representation of the voices of those humans worst affected by climate change is vital for achieving climate justice.

4. The earth is our home.

In her speech at the 2019 World Economic Forum, Greta Thunberg used the metaphor “our house is on fire” to describe the ongoing climate crisis (Thunberg2019). The metaphor reminded me that the root word for “eco” is the Greek oikos, which means “house” (Harper 2021). Eco is short for ecology; a field of study that highlights the importance of the natural world for our continued survival. Take for example plankton, which provide over half the oxygen in our atmosphere as well as serving as the foundation of our food chains and as a carbon sink. Our planet wouldn’t be the place it is today without them, which is why it is so fitting that the word “plankton” is related to the word “planet” through the greek planētēs, which means “wanderer” (Harper 2021).Today, ocean acidification caused by increasing CO2 levels threatens many species of plankton. It is this kind of ecological catastrophe Thunberg’s metaphor is meant to make us panic about. However, too much panic can cause problems. Activists often experience “burnout” from imagining themselves in a burning house for too long (Khan 2021). Psychologists are now talking about “eco-anxiety”, which comes from the words oikos and the Latin angere, “house choked” (Fawbert 2019). This brings me to my next point.

5. We need panic, but we need hope as well.

In the same speech, Thunberg also said “I don’t want you to hope. I want you to panic.” Panic is the core emotion of the climate movement in the same way pride is for the gay rights movement. The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek nature god Pan, who whenever nature was under threat, would produce a sound so powerful it would scare the enemies of the natural world back into hiding (Atsma2017, Harper 2021). In her speech, it might be argued that Thunberg tries to do the same thing. Idealistic hope for a utopian future is certainly dangerous if it leads to political complacency. “Utopia” is a term coined by Thomas More in a book of the same name, in which he described his perfect world (More 1516). However, More’s bookwas never meant to be a blueprint but a provocation. “Utopia”, after all, is a pun; constructed from the Greek terms for both “good place” and “no place.” I’d argue prosperity is created not from the expectation of future utopias but from the pursuit of hope (“prosperity” comes from the latin pro and spes which together mean “towards hope” (Harper 2021)). Panic inspires action, but is difficult to sustain; Pan, after all is the only god in Greek mythology who dies (Plutarch ~70CE). Just as a future sustainable world must be powered by both wind and solar, perhaps we need both panic and hope to power us to get to it.

6. Individuals can make a difference.

My research into the roots of language is “radical” in the term’s original meaning of “rooted” (hence “radish” (Harper 2021)). Arguably, it is also in line with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “rhizome,” a mass of roots that establishes “connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social structures” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983). However, I would also see it as radical in the activist sense of making change at the grassroots, in trying to make a difference yourself. Stephen Fry has noted that one interpretation of the etymology of “democracy” is “mob rule”, an idea I’m interested in because of the links between “mob” and “mobilisation” (Fry 2015; Harper 2021). While the history of democracy is often tied to Athens, democracy also developed independently in Iceland in 930CE. The Icelandic Parliament is the oldest existing parliament in the world and formed grassroots-style at Thingvellir, a gap between two tectonic plates (Wallenfeldt 2021).“Thingvellir” means “valley of the Thing” because thing (the root of the modern homonym) is the Viking word for “parliament” (Harper 2021). Real democracy, I would argue, the kind born from inside the earth, contains within it a philosophy of individual agency we desperately need to embrace now.


Atsma, Aaron J. 2017. "Pan". Theoi.Com.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1983. Capitalism And Schizophrenia. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press.

Fawbert, Dave. 2019. "Climate Change: Are You Suffering From ‘Eco-Anxiety’? - BBC Three".

Fry, Stephen. 2015. "Stephen Fry On Russell Brand". Youtube.Com.

Gabbatiss, Josh. 2018. "What The IPCC Report Means For The Earth And How You Can Help Beat Climate Change". The Independent.

Hamilton, Hamish. 2021. "THE LOST WORDS PHENOMENON". Five Dials, no. 58: 22-65.

Harper, Douglas. 2021. "Online Etymology Dictionary | Origin, History And Meaning Of English Words". Etymonline.Com.

Khan, Aliya. 2021. "Activist Burnout Is Real – And You Probably Need To Read These 4 Ways ToManage It". Everyday Feminism.

Lewis, Tim. 2020. "'It Always Hits Me Hard': How A Haunting Album Helped Save The Whales". The Guardian.

More, Thomas. 2021. "The Project Gutenberg Ebook Of Utopia, By Thomas More". Gutenberg.Org.

Pavid, Katie. 2021. "When Worlds Collide: The Lesson Of The Great Auk". Nhm.Ac.Uk.

"Right Whales | National Geographic". 2021. Animals.

"The Obsolescence Of Oracles". 2021. Loeb Classical Library.

Thunberg, Greta. 2019. "Our House Is On Fire! | World Economic Forum 2019". Youtube.Com.

Wallenfeldt, Jeff. 2021. "Althing | History & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica.

"Why Are Plankton The Most Vital Organisms On Earth?". 2015. Youtube.Com.