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Save the world with words

Susie Dent's tips on how to embrace the language of sustainability
Save the world with words

New research reveals many of us use terms such as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ as often as once a day – but almost two-thirds of people asked don’t completely understand them.

Other confusing terms included carbon footprint, regenerative, and ecological. 

The study of 2,000 adults, conducted by Yeo Valley Organic, found that 81% of adults think there is lots of jargon when it comes to sustainability and being environmentally friendly.

73% think there are too many eco-related words, which makes it difficult to differentiate the meanings.

Education and eco jargon

However, 58% would like to be more educated on the words and phrases associated with sustainability and 74% think there should be more education about saving and caring for the planet in schools.   

61% of respondents believe that if we had more education around the jargon, it would lead to more people doing their bit for the planet.

‘There is so much jargon around saving the planet and each word has a different meaning, so it can get very confusing. As the world acts against climate change, we must understand these terms.

‘We want everyone to feel included and join the conversation, and really understand how you can do your part to help slow down climate change.

‘Whether it’s buying organic products to cut down on your carbon footprint, turning lights off to save energy, or simply educating yourself on the topic, small steps can make a big difference.’

Yeo Valley Organic’s managing director

Sustainability in conversation

The study, conducted via OnePoll, also found out that confusion around this topic has led to 36% using a word or phrase related to sustainability in conversation, without being fully confident they were using it correctly.

A quarter of people asked have even had to correct someone else on the meaning or use of a word or phrase related to sustainability.

Susie Dent’s tips

Here are lexicographer Susie Dent’s tips on how to embrace the language of sustainability.

1. Read, read, read: it’s always my number one rule when it comes to vocabulary. It doesn’t have to be specialist newspapers or websites, but there is a wealth of helpful information out there when it comes to sustainability. The more exposure you have to unfamiliar vocabulary, the more you will absorb.

2. Don’t forget to be positive: when we talk or hear about climate change it tends to be always negative – leading to an ‘eco-anxiety’ and a sense of helplessness. But language shapes our behaviour, and changing the narrative and using positive language about what we can do will determine both the mind-set and the actions of all future generations.

3. Make a green glossary if it helps. Note down words that seem opaque or complex and investigate them a bit more. Dictionaries are your friend.

4. Be a word detective: learn some of the history behind everyday words in the language of sustainability. The word ‘ecology’, for example, came to us via German but is ultimately from the Greek for ‘the study of home’. Ecology is the study and knowledge of our home planet.

5. Embrace the new. Sometimes words strike a chord because they fill a gap in our language, and allow us to articulate an exact circumstance or emotion. ‘Solastalgia’, for example, is the creation of the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who blended ‘solace’ and ‘nostalgia’ to describe the distress felt from environmental change on our doorstep. ‘Solastalgia’ is an emotional response to a lost landscape. We may not use the word ourselves, but just knowing it exists allows us to think about our feelings towards environmental change in a more profound and helpful way.

‘Language shapes our environment, but our environment also shapes our language, in quite fundamental ways. What has become known as ‘ecolinguistics’ is a powerful tool in fighting climate change – our understanding of its vocabulary and the stories it tells determine how we feel about our planet and its future. 

‘Our children are immersed in the language of sustainability: to them, words like ‘regenerative’ will be as normal as ‘recycling’ has become to us.

‘But as adults we too can increase our understanding and involvement, by exploring and decoding the language of the environment and, crucially, its application to our daily lives.’


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