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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

go green

(2000’s | businese? | “be environmentally responsible” “do the right thing by the environment” “conserve, recycle, etc.”)

Just about anyone can do it. A shopper, a driver, a homeowner, the corner store, a national chain, a utility, the government at any level. Not only does it not have to be an individual, it doesn’t have to have agency; a product line or a kind of equipment can go green, for example. And there are zillions of ways to do it. Reusable cloth bags. Solar panels. Recycling. Using recycled materials. Smokestack scrubbers. The Endangered Species Act. Limiting waste and pollution, conserving resources, spending your money on products manufactured in harmless or beneficial ways, making a conscious effort to preserve other species — all are means to a green end. Earth Day took place for the first time shortly before my fifth birthday, and I am a first-generation child of environmentalism. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Give a hoot, don’t pollute. (Should have been a semi-colon, but never mind.) Save the planet. The Clean Air Act was passed within my lifetime, but not by much, and unleaded gasoline became mandatory in my childhood. (But I remember my father telling service station attendants to “Fill it with regular, please” — “regular” referring to leaded gasoline.) In the fifties, we felt compelled to apologize for abundance. (Eat your dinner! There are children starving in Africa!) The seventies were all about doing penance for our excesses, both in matters of consumption (sharp increase in gas prices), or pollution (rivers catching fire). That all went out the window when Reagan came in and proclaimed Morning in America, which was our cue to go out and start wasting gas again. (We’re still doing it, but fuel economy has improved somewhat over the decades.)

The word “green” itself has many senses, and the two most prominent today are the newest: as in “ecologically conscious” and “pertaining to the Green Party” (an eighties phenomenon that followed the association of “green” with nature), which has made its presence felt in Europe if not here. Charles Reich’s “Greening of America” was not related directly to the former sense, but it was already in everyone’s ear. “Green” to mean money (noun) or “inexperienced” (adjective) are much less common than they used to be, at least to my ear. The use of “green” to mean “marijuana,” on the other hand, has increased over time. Yet now when you hear the word green used as an adjective, you think of the environment first. “Go green” has to do with other meanings only rarely, as a joke or play on words. The phrase may be used on occasion to mean “turn green” (with envy or nausea), or even “spoil,” as in food, but such uses have been possible for a long time.

“Go green” seems to have sprouted in England first and spread fairly slowly in the U.S. I would say it was not widespread in the U.S. until after 2000, although it appeared in print well before that (the first U.S. usage uncovered by LexisNexis dates from 1989) and no one seems to have had much trouble figuring out what it meant. Its rise was aided by the fact that it shadowed various national and international business trends. Given our consumption culture, almost any sort of change requires spending money, and “going green” is often presented as a business opportunity, if not a necessity (it will save money in the long run, our customers demand it and will shop elsewhere if we don’t do anything). That capitalist redoubt the Journal of Commerce ran an article headed “THE BENEFITS OF GOING ‘GREEN’” in December 1994, and the phrase pops up frequently in the business press. That’s a little surprising for people of my generation, who grew up listening to titans of industry heap scorn on all things ecological, but money conquers all. The latest from CNN says that “going green” is passé anyway: “When Brad Bennett started his website [in 2009] ‘going green’ was still the big trend, he said. Today, people seem to care less about the eco-properties of the goods they buy and more about where they’re made.” But buying products made in certain places may also constitute going green, so it’s not that simple. Environmentalism has reshaped our habits and values — how we buy, how we think, how we see the world. It can hardly help leaving its mark on our language as well.


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