Enviro notes: Would-be linguists take a great fall

Roy Strang advises readers to be more aware about what the words they say and hear actually mean.

About 150 years ago, Humpty Dumpty insisted that words meant just what he wanted them to mean, “neither more, nor less.”

When I served on Surrey’s Environmental Advisory Committee, I sometimes wondered if I hadn’t strayed into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, especially when I was told not to concern myself with development since my focus was to be the environment only.

To put the best possible interpretation on that instruction, one must think that the speaker had a very imperfect understanding of environment. Every development, large or small, will have some impact on its environment; the impact may be severe or minor, long-lasting or temporary depending on the site and what is done, but impact there will be.

The environment is everything around us and extends far beyond immediate boundaries.

For example, the boundary of the Little Campbell River’s environment goes well beyond the river banks to encompass its whole catchment area up to the watersheds which determine whether water will flow into the Little Campbell River or to adjacent streams.

It’s much more difficult to determine atmospheric boundaries, since they change with changing wind direction – moist, warm air blowing across the Pacific from the southwest is very different from a wintry Arctic outflow from the east.

An environmental description deals with the situation at one point in time, a situation resulting from past changes.

The concept of change introduces the science of ecology, the study of processes and changes within a defined area; changes which often alter the environment where they occur.

Sometimes change can be rapid like the mud slide which closed Highway 1 last year, or slow and measured in decades as with old-growth forests.

Most natural changes fall somewhere between.

Habitat, the site and conditions in which a plant or an animal lives, is a description of the environment in which the organism being studied grows, with time added. It means much the same as environment, but ecology is different since it deals with change – its causes, rate, direction and effect.

If we want to be understood by an audience, we cannot emulate Humpty Dumpty and assign arbitrary meanings to our words; we should use accepted terminology.

When speakers assert that a proposed action will upset the ‘ecology’ of an area when they mean the ‘environment’, or that some action will “decimate the environment” when decimate literally means ‘remove one-tenth,’ one can be sure that either they are careless with vocabulary or are not well versed in the subject.

In either case, their message should be discounted.

‘Organic’ is another word which has passed into the common vocabulary incorrectly. All plant growth is organic so there can be no inorganic plants.

It’s too much of a mouthful to say some vegetables or fruits that they have been grown without biocides or artificial chemicals, and so they are labelled and sold as “organically grown.” This tag has become uncritically accepted for want of a more accurate term.

Since ‘the holly and the ivy’ appear amongst the very many ideas associated with Christmas, perhaps it’s permissible in environmental writing to add ‘Christmas’ to the list of words whose true meaning is concealed under layer alternatives?

Let’s all watch out for imitators of Humpty Dumpty, and say what we mean and mean what we say.

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca


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