Words Reflect the Spirit of the Times

By David L. Brown

Each year the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary choose a “Word of the Year,” which is intended to capture the spirit of the changing times. This year’s choice is entirely appropriate in view of the deepening bad news about the environment and humankind’s effect thereon.

The 2006 Word of the Year (well, actually a phrase) is “Carbon Neutral,” referring to ideas, concepts and plans to rein in the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to the Oxford University Press USA blog at http://blog.oup.com/:

Being carbon neutral involves calculating your total climate-damaging carbon emissions, reducing them where possible, and then balancing your remaining emissions, often by purchasing a carbon offset: paying to plant new trees or investing in “green” technologies such as solar and wind power.

The rise of carbon neutral reflects the growing importance of the green movement in the United States. In a CBS News/New York Times Poll in May 2006, 66% of respondents agreed that global warming is a problem that’s causing a serious impact now. 2006 also saw the launch of a new (and naturally, carbon neutral) magazine about eco-living, Plenty; the actor Leonardo DiCaprio is planning a environmentally-themed reality TV series about an eco-village; and colleges from Maine to Wisconsin are pledging to be carbon neutral within five years. It’s more than a trend, it’s a movement.

Erin McKean, editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary 2e, said “The increasing use of the word carbon neutral reflects not just the greening of our culture, but the greening of our language. When you see first graders trying to make their classrooms carbon neutral, you know the word has become mainstream.”

“All the Oxford lexicographers look forward to choosing the Word of the Year. We know that people love fun, flashy words like truthiness or the latest Bushism, but we are always looking for a word that is both reflective of the events and concerns of the past year and also forward-looking: a word that we think will only become more used and more useful as time goes on.”

It is interesting to note that at least one other word among the nine runners-up for 2006 Word of the Year is also an environmentally related term. That word (well actually an acronym) is “CSA,” which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The concept of CSA is to support small, local farms through cooperative efforts, an example of thinking globally, acting locally.

Two other runners-up also could be counted among the threats hanging over civilization. They are “Islamofascism,” and “Elbow Bumping” (another phrase!) which is defined as an alternative to handshaking as a form of greeting, designed to avoid the spreading of germs — perhaps a good idea in case a pandemic should come along.

It will be interesting to see what words, phrases and acronyms become harbingers of future events as our uncertain future unfolds.

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