Neologisms for the Anthropocene

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Article by Richard Fisher in BBC (1/26/23):                   

Why we need new words for life in the Anthropocene

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is assembling a new lexicon for people's experience of climate change and environmental upheaval, writes Richard Fisher.

The beginning paragraphs read thus:

One day, Harold Antoine Des Voeux realised he lacked a word. It was the beginning of the 20th Century, and the doctor had been treating multiple people for lung ailments. Gradually, he figured out the reason for the excess illness he was seeing: it was the air pollution caused by nearby factories burning so much coal. In one 1909 incident that affected Glasgow, more than 1,000 people had died.

There was no name for this pollution, so Des Voeux coined one: "smog" – a portmanteau of smoke and fog. "He didn't ask for permission. He didn't consult a linguist. He just put it in his paper and announced it," says Heidi Quante, an artist who specialises in new environmental vocabulary. "It became a neologism, because people were desperate to name what was in the air."­

It wouldn't be the last time that a new word was needed to describe environmental change. It's why Quante and her fellow artist Alicia Escott have spent almost a decade collecting and creating new words to define the experience of living in the Anthropocene (which, of course is itself a neologism, popularised in the 2000s.)

Quante and Escott call their project The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, and their goal is to co-create a new lexicon for a time of climate change, biodiversity collapse and other transformations in the natural world.

Working with the public, Quante and Escott have come up with a number of new words that rely heavily on non-English roots.  Here's an example:

Another non-English neologism came from a conversation with two young people of El Salvadorian and Korean origin in Los Angeles. There had been some tensions between their respective communities, explains Escott, so they wanted a word that helped remind them of what they had in common. They came up with chucosol * – a mixture of El Salvadorian slang, Korean and Spanish. It essentially means "dirty – wow – Sun", and describes the Los Angeles sunset.


*heol 헐 ("oh my; OMG; wow; whoa")

I ask Language Log readers, is this type of word formation a cromulent solution to the supposed / felt need for new vocabulary to deal with climate issues and environmental transformation?


Selected readings

[h.t. Arthur Waldron}


  1. Gregg said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 8:09 am

    Forecast? Doomweather.

    Not a flashy portmanteau, but an all-purpose moniker.

  2. Philip Anderson said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 8:36 am

    We always need new words, and not surprisingly climate change studies and effects are a new source. I don’t see that as more significant than say new technology.

    Regarding non-English roots for words, does Anthropocene count? The roots are non-English words, but nevertheless productive roots in English. Has it been borrowed or calques in other languages?

    I don’t see chuco (heol) sol catching on, although it’s interesting that heol is the Breton for sun.

  3. xiesong said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    Hi, Prefessor Mair,
    May I ask you a question on the title "Sino-Platonic Papers?" For some reason, I misread as sino-plutonic and thought papers published have some deep-under knowledge about China. Now I am dumbfounded at my error but even more confused with the word "sino-platonic," though I know the meanings of both sino and platonic. Would you please help enlight me on this. Thanks. – xiesong

  4. Anubis Bard said,

    January 30, 2023 @ 10:51 am

    I have the impression people are mostly making do with the words they already have – with a few exceptions like greenwashing, doomscrolling or prepper that capture succinctly some new development. I'll be curious to hear if others have noticed much in the way of neologisms that seem to have traction.

  5. ajay said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 9:49 am

    This exercise reminds me of a setting for the game "Dialect"…

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