Eco-anxiety and net zero among new terms included in Oxford English Dictionary

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A train submerged after severe flooding in Germany in July (AP)
A train submerged after severe flooding in Germany in July (AP)

Eco-anxiety, net zero and climate catastrophe are among new terms that have found their way into the language, according to a new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

As leaders, negotiators and campaigners prepare to descend on Glasgow for crunch UN Cop26 talks, a special update of the authoritative dictionary has been launched, dedicated to exploring the language of climate change.

Other new words and phrases include CO2, a contraction of carbon dioxide, and global heating, which has been adopted by some people to replace global warming to talk about the long term increase in temperatures.

New sub-entries in the dictionary include climate crisis, climate catastrophe and climate emergency, reflecting the greater urgency people are feeling about the issue.

Climate denier, climate sceptic and climate denialism have joined the list of terms, to describe the rejection of the idea or evidence that climate change caused by humans is occurring, or represents a significant threat.

In recognition of the growing fear many people have about climate change, eco-anxiety makes a first appearance in the dictionary to describe the unease or apprehension about current and future harm to the environment.

Other additions include climate justice, climate refugee and climate strike, in recognition of the youth protests led by Greta Thunberg, as well as extreme weather, to describe weather that is very harsh, unseasonal or atypical for a region – especially when attributed to climate change.

Language is also changing as people discuss how to tackle the crisis, with net zero now used to describe balancing greenhouse gas emissions with removals, rain garden to absorb rainwater and air source for a type of heat pump.

The uptake in electric vehicles is reflected in new entries for range anxiety and smart charging, and there are additions to windmill to refer to wind turbines and tidal to reflect the potential to generate power from the tides.

The update comes after the OED, produced by Oxford Languages, part of Oxford University Press, started a project early in 2021 to broaden and review its coverage of vocabulary related to climate change and sustainability.

Lexicographers for OED have also traced existing climate-related words further back in time, tracking the term “climate change” back to a US magazine article in 1854.

In the 1980s, the world was talking about the greenhouse effect, but that was quickly overtaken by global warming, and then both were eclipsed by the use of climate change which has seen sharp and steady growth over the past 40 years, the language experts said.

Now the language has become more urgent, with climate emergency, crisis and even catastrophe joining the lexicon, and seeing their use surge.

Although Ms Thunberg started her skolstrejk – school strike – in 2018, prompting a global movement, the term first appeared a few years earlier in 2014, in a proposed event organised by the activist organisation Popular Resistance.

Trish Stewart, science editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, said: “As world leaders come together to seek solutions to the climate change problem, it has been fascinating, if at times somewhat alarming, to delve deeper into the language we use, both now and in the past, to talk about climate and sustainability.

“The very real sense of urgency that is now upon us is reflected in our language.

“What happens next depends on so many factors but, one thing we can be sure of is that our language will continue to evolve and to tell the story.”

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