Ask Mint | Green ideas help shape a new vocabulary

Ask Mint | Green ideas help shape a new vocabulary
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First Published: Sun, Mar 15 2009. 09 53 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Mar 15 2009. 09 53 PM IST
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” This was a sentence constructed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 to elucidate his views on grammar and sentence structure. The sentence makes no sense, but it has an acceptable grammatical structure. Chomsky remarked that neither this sentence nor any part of it would ever have occurred in an English discourse. “Colourless green” is an impossible collocation; so is “sleep furiously”. And “green ideas”? This phrase cannot be dismissed as mere nonsense. A Google search on “green ideas” yielded 53 million results!
Traditionally, green has stood for immaturity; a simple, gullible person is called a “greenhorn”. This sense of the word was in the news during the presidential campaign in the US last year. US senator John McCain kept harping on Barack Obama’s lack of experience. In reply, Obama said, “Now senator McCain suggests?that?somehow...I’m?green behind the ears, you know, and I’m just spouting off…” There was a debate about the correctness of this idiom. Commentators pointed out that the correct phrase should be “wet behind the ears”, a farming metaphor. The ear is the last spot on the body of a newborn calf to get dry.
Today, the word green is associated with concern for the environment. Greenpeace, founded in 1971, is the world’s best known environmental activist group. The phrase “climate change” is more ominous than it sounds. The earth’s ecosystem is endangered, and global warming resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases can lead to a temperature rise of 3-8 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. Since the turn of the millennium, there has been growing awareness of the need to confront and resolve the issue of climate change. It is no coincidence that the New Oxford American Dictionary chose words related to eco-themes as word of the year for three successive years.
The word for 2008 is the rather novel “hypermiling”, defined as the attempt to get maximum mileage from petrol by making adjustments to the car and adopting fuel-saving driving habits. Simple, common sense techniques such as turning the engine off at stop lights and removing unwanted cargo from the car can make a difference. US President Obama said that keeping the tyre pressure at recommended levels and tuning up the engine regularly can save as much oil as can be produced by the proposed offshore drilling. Hypermiling came to be known as “eco-driving”, and was supported by the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, and dignitaries including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The word for 2007 was “locavore”, which refers to people who prefer to eat food produced locally, within a radius of 100 miles (161km) from where they live. By so doing, they save on packaging, transportation and refrigeration.
The word for 2006 is perhaps the most important of the green family of new words: “carbon neutral”. A business or an industry can generate carbon emissions which aid global warming and climate change. “Carbon footprint” is an index of the greenhouse gases emitted by an enterprise, measured in units of carbon dioxide. The first step in saving the planet is to reduce emissions from our industry until we reach zero carbon footprint.
It is not only heavy industries such as cement, steel, textile and power that produce high gas emissions. In May 2007, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., announced in a webcast speech to his employees that the firm planned to go carbon neutral. He said he was “changing the DNA of our business”. The strength of his conviction and commitment is echoed in his peroration: “Our company has always been about imagining the future and then making that vision a reality.”
Recently, Walt Disney Co. said it plans to halve itsgreenhouse gas emissions by 2012 as the first step towards becoming carbon neutral. This announcement came a few days after a Disneyrelease, WALL-E, in which the earth is shown as a hugepolluted garbage dump, won this year’s Oscar for the best animated movie.
Several other compound words with carbon as a base have been created. An international agreement on “carbon capping”, known as the Kyoto Protocol, introduced a provision for fixing a cap on emissions for each member country. By a judicious use of this allowance and by adherence to emission-reducing strategies, a country could make savings out of its carbon entitlement and gain “carbon credit”. The units thus saved could be traded; and industries that have exhausted their cap can buy credit from those that have not used up their quota. This system was introduced on the model of the acid rain cap-and-trade programme which achieved 100% compliance in the US.
Companies in the developed countries have realized that going green is not an option but a compulsion. Marks and Spencer Plc. has set 2012 as the target date to attain carbon neutrality. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has asked all its suppliers to keep track of the emissions they produce. General Electric Co. has launched a programme called Ecomagination which aims to embed green as a part of its daily business in order to “develop tomorrow’s solutions”.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Mar 15 2009. 09 53 PM IST