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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: environment


(1980’s | “non-dairy vegetarian”)

There is such a firm on-line consensus about when, where, and by whom the word “vegan” was invented that I’m inclined to believe it, though I might not if the OED didn’t back it up. No more suspense: In 1944, an Englishman named Donald Watson and a small group of like-minded “non-dairy vegetarians” founded a group to promote their way of life. The story goes that the word is an abridgement of “veg-etari-an” that evolved from group deliberations among Watson and his circle as they searched for a simple, memorable way of referring to themselves. They did not invent veganism, of course; many religious movements and illustrious individuals had attached themselves to it over the centuries. But they did change its course.

It takes a while for tiny groups with unpopular ideas to make headway, but it happens more often than you think. Outside of scientific journals, “vegan” seems to have occurred rarely before 1975, and infrequently until a decade or so after that. One supposes, without having looked for any evidence, that a critical mass had built by then within the culture — that is, enough people practiced veganism and were willing, nay, determined to talk about it — and therefore the existing word began to take up room in our common vocabulary. Well, it might be true, but how would you prove it?

Note on pronunciation: Apparently Watson preferred “veegan” from the beginning; dictionaries printed as late as 1990 gave “vejjan” as an alternative. (“Vaygan,” as in a being from the star Vega, and “veggan,” off-rhyming with legging, seem not to have been considered.) “Veegan” has definitely become standard; I don’t recall ever hearing it pronounced any other way. (I think I first encountered the word around 1990, probably in print.)

The roots of Watson’s veganism lay in an abhorrence of animal cruelty; it stems from anti-vivisectionism. Vegans despised the exploitation of animals and the violence that went with it. That is still true, but I sense that the case for veganism has come to rest more on nutritional and environmental grounds. Raising plants for food is much more efficient than raising animals. (There the argument can be made in terms of going beyond sparing animals to sparing the earth.) Nutritional justifications have had a harder time — vegans have had to combat the perception that their diet leads to various deficiencies, most of which can be corrected with supplements. But in comparison with the effects of meat-eating, veganism doesn’t look so bad.

Vegans must also reckon with our species’ prehistoric domestication of animals, and millennia of hunting before that — we’ve always killed and eaten animals, so why should we stop now? To which the vegan replies, there are many, many ancient practices that civilized people don’t perform any more, and killing our fellow animals for their products, edible or otherwise, ought to be on that list. As the earth continues to groan under us, it’s getting harder to deny that at least some forms of domestication will not be sustainable much longer. Just don’t make me live without potatoes fried in peanut oil.

The cruelty argument, powerful though it is, collapses if we discover that plants are conscious, feel pain, etc. It may be that we cannot feed ourselves without viciously exploiting one or another sentient product of the earth. I suppose we could try eating each other (wait, that sounds like a movie). If we devour ourselves like the cats of Kilkenny, that will save the planet, won’t it?

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(1980’s | scientese | “plant,” “vegetable,” “vegetarian”)

Confirmed carnivore that I am, I’m always a little bemused by this expression — I concede that it makes sense, though “plant-rooted” might be more poetic. At its broadest, it means “made from things that grow out of the earth.” A plant-based diet means you eat predominantly, but not exclusively, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fungi, and things made from them. (Lovely Liz from Queens likes to quote Michael Pollan’s dictum, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) The emphasis is more on avoiding animal products than on supplementing them. So it’s veganism with room for backsliding, but the foundation is clearly vegetarian. That would seem to warrant the firmness and solidity of “based.”

“Plant-based” existed in the seventies, but no one used it to talk about food. That was true as late as 2000. The first citation I found (1979) modified ethanol, intended to distinguish it from petroleum-based gasoline back when we started talking about using it as an additive. (No one was thinking about climate change in those days, just the fact that fossil fuels had gotten expensive and corn prices kept going down.) It might also be used for pharmaceuticals or vaccines, and it frequently modified “product.” It still does all that, and it may have an abstract use as well, as in “plant-based business” or “plant-based lifestyle.”

The beauty of the phrase is its sheer reach; just about anything can be plant-based. We tend to think of it first with reference to food, and it continues to have a strong bias toward products with animal counterparts — fake meat, fake leather, etc. After all, most plant-based products make no attempt to impersonate flesh or hide. “Plant-based” is also widely employed to imply that the product so described is safer and/or healthier to use and less harmful to the environment, and, if food, minimally processed — is a vegetable “plant-based,” or simply “plant”? — even if the details are not spelled out.

Much is made in some circles over the resources required to produce meat, and the point is well taken. Growing animals in order to slaughter and eat them is wasteful, shockingly so in some cases. Plants are more efficient, but they too are born of the earth; exploiting plants means exploiting the planet. Maybe we’ll wear our old earth out a little slower if we switch to plant-based diets, but we will still wear it out. The earth’s carrying capacity cannot be made infinite, no matter how good we get at extending it.

What will happen to this expression and its relatives if we, as a species, consume less and less of our fellow animals? It will last as long as we find it necessary to distinguish alternatives to animal flesh from the real thing, and such distinctions seem likely to be needed for at least a few more decades. If veganism becomes the norm, we may have to go the other way and start saying “animal-based” instead. Presumably, “veggie burger” will go extinct at that time as well. Anything that eases the ubiquity of the vastly irritating “veggie” is all right with me.

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(1990’s | academese (science)? | “ecosystem,” “zone,” “range”)

A biome is part of what we used to call the biosphere before that became a brand name right around 1990. The defining characteristic of a biome is its biota (living things in aggregate) more than climate or topography. If you can demarcate part of the planet with reference to its plants, animals, and micro-organisms, you call it a biome. Although the word properly denotes a region in the natural world, usually large but limited, it was first used commonly to refer to miniature, artificial environments, as in zoos or Biosphere 2, which was an attempt to create a self-sustaining colony that had some success, depending on whom, when, and where you asked. “Biome” was still primarily a technical term then, but available to the curious or well-read. In today’s language, the term is somewhat more likely to be used to talk about real natural environments (i.e., outdoor and independent of human-made boundaries). The word’s initial bias toward the fake probably resulted from the fact that when Biosphere 2 got going, we needed a word to refer to the distinct regions contained within it — ocean, desert, arable land, etc. — that wouldn’t be readily confused with the words we already had for the real things. Since “biome” was rarely used at the time (mainly in articles about zoos), it came in handy.

Within the last twenty years, “microbiome” and “gut biome” have become popular, building on the miniaturization associated with the parent term and pushing it further. Not that a microbiome is impossibly small, although it is very tiny by traditional biome standards, but that it is populated entirely by micro-organisms. We have them all over the place — on our skin, in various organs (not just the intestines), the bloodstream — and other animals have them, too. One supposes that micro-organisms have their own biomes composed of nano-organisms. But it’s organisms all the way down.

So far I have been trafficking in popular definitions, and I really should be more precise. The human microbiome, according to an NIH paper in 2007, means “collective genomes of all microorganisms present in or on the human body.” That’s much more satisfying phonologically, and tends to confirm a sneaking suspicion that without genomes, there would be no biomes. Although Webster’s Third defines “-ome” as “abstract entity, group, or mass,” in these words it seems to indicate totality.

Ecology has come a long way, baby. Even fifty years ago, we still saw the world in three zones: torrid, temperate, and frigid. (All good words, it’s true.) There were general terms for various ecological regions — savanna, rain forest, wetlands — but our understanding back then of what those terms meant seems so primitive and unnuanced. The rise of microbiology has changed everything. We break the planet into smaller and smaller pieces partly because we keep finding smaller and smaller constituent parts, which perforce alters the way we see and understand the large-scale creatures. First one biosphere became many, and those mini-biospheres begat biomes, which begat microbiomes. Those little suckers may be small, but they’re not too small to study.

Any Hank Williams appreciators out there? Sing along: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the biome!” Farther west, it’s biome on the range. But stay away from the atomic biome tests.

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