Words matter: Why subtle word changes can inspire big action
COMMUNICATIONS | MAR 13, 2023
Words have power. Every minute, spoken and written words change the way we think, which influences our choices and actions, and inevitably impacts the people and world around us.
These bits of meaning enable us to interact with others, and are essential to make sense of the world. Their meaning can also change over time – sometimes quite dramatically.
Think of a word like “computer”. Today we know this to mean a man-made thinking device that helps us do all kinds of work, but the original definition referred to a person – someone whose job it was to compute, i.e. solve complex mathematical equations. In the same way a painter is someone who paints, or a baker is someone who bakes, a computer used to be someone who computes.
When it comes to conservation, the words we use also have changing meanings and connotations. And these changes over time can often mean the difference between inspiring others to take action, and another despondent message floating in the digital abyss.
Describing ‘climate change’:
Using words that evoke emotions
Words have the power to evoke strong emotion in an audience, and the subtle difference in synonyms when it comes to connotations is not to be underestimated. For instance, public reaction to certain terminology when it comes to our rising global average temperatures and accelerated changes in global weather patterns, has been the subject of various studies.
Back in 2014 a study done at Yale University found that the terms “global warming” and “climate change” were perceived very differently, despite them often being used interchangeably to refer to the same phenomenon. The study found that Americans were +13 percentage points more likely to view “global warming” as a “bad thing” – and +10 points more likely to call it a “very bad thing” – than “climate change”. Overall they were also more worried about “global warming” and its effects (525 of participants), as opposed to “climate change” (48%).
It is difficult to predict whether the difference in perception of these two terms will have an impact on the action being taken against the issue. In several cases, however, the study found that “global warming” generates stronger negative feelings and stronger perceptions of threat among certain demographics, which could be potential motivators to act against it.
Another difference in terminology is “global warming” versus “global heating”. In 2021 lexicographers from the Oxford English Dictionary found that the term “global heating” was used 15 times more in the first half of 2021 than the equivalent period in 2018. This change was subtle but notable, according to Cambridge University, as the adjective “warm” typically evokes positive feelings associated with comfort, cosiness and safety. On the other hand, “heat” is often seen as uncomfortable, distressing or even dangerous.
A shift towards ‘crisis’: The words that ‘accurately’ reflect the situation
In 2019 British daily newspaper The Guardian announced that it would be making serious changes to its environmental reporting vocabulary. Among other changes, its house style guide now preferred “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” to “climate change”, because the latter was “no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation”. Similarly, “global heating” replaced “global warming”, as it was considered more scientifically accurate.
These changes were appropriate, since it was around the time that the language surrounding environmental issues started becoming more urgent. The Oxford English Dictionary found that the use of “climate crisis” increased nearly 20 fold from 2018 to 2020, and that the use of “climate emergency” increased even more dramatically – around 76 fold. In 2021, the use of “climate crisis” went up 40%, according to Cambridge University.
South African science magazine Quest explains the difference this shift brings about: It distinguishes between “change” that is not necessarily negative, and “crisis” or “emergency” that convey a much clearer message of imminent danger. This can, in turn, invoke a stronger call to action.
This shift to urgency is important because – as environmentalist George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach, explains – our brains are “wired” to ignore the problem of climate change, since it does not display “the clear signals that we require to mobilise our inbuilt sense of threat”. Therefore, the language we use to talk about the problem must appeal to people’s values and inspire immediate action.
Why the Germans and Swedes care more about the environment than the English
Another important factor to consider is how the linguistic structure of a spoken language – especially our mother tongue – influences the way we see the world.
Some languages, like English or French, use clear future tense marking when speaking about events that are still to come. E.g. “It will rain tomorrow.” Other so-called ‘futureless’ languages, like German or the Scandinavian languages, make use of present tense verbs in such cases. E.g. “Es regnet morgen” literally means “it rains tomorrow”. An auxiliary verb indicating time is not needed, or, in some cases, does not exist.
This might not seem like an important distinction, but research published in 2018 suggests that speakers of futureless languages are more likely to engage in green behaviour. Researchers also found that changing from a futureless to a futured language makes people 20% less inclined to help safeguard their environment.
Furthermore, countries with futureless languages as their official languages were also found to have stricter environmental policies in place.
Researchers have attributed this strange correlation to a kind of emotional distance created by futured languages, which makes speakers in the present feel further removed from events in the future. A 2013 study from the University of California supports this: Speakers of futureless languages were found more likely to engage in future-focused activities, like saving money or making healthy lifestyle changes.
However, it’s not only the linguistic separation of “today” and “tomorrow” that can hurt conservation efforts. Some words can subtly separate us from nature and distance us from climate discourse.
Research recommends using terms like “our environment” instead of “the environment” to emphasise that humans do not exist outside of nature, and that we are not exempt from the issues of the natural world.
And the words we choose to use today can even influence the communication of tomorrow by impacting our vocabularies.
We have the power today to determine how the language of the future will look. Writers use dictionaries as normative tools – they tell us how our language use is supposed to look. But dictionaries are actually written by looking at the corpus of how language is used by the masses today and throughout history. So the words and phrases we use now will appear in tomorrow’s dictionaries which will, in turn, regulate the language use of the future.
At LoveGreen, we are acutely aware of the value of clear and effective communication. That’s why we use great care when crafting messages inspired by nature, and why we give each word the respect it deserves as something that grows and evolves – like our natural world.
Written by Anri Matthee. Growing up in a generation constantly being confronted with an online onslaught of bad news regarding pollution, climate change and wanton abuse of human rights and natural resources, the opportunity to share constructive and action-inspiring messages that effect change feels like both a privilege and a necessity.
There’s no shortage of news on the loss of forests around the world. And there’s no doubt this is an important story that needs to be told. But on International Day of Forests, there are also many incredible forests in South Africa that are protected.