When people spoke of a “climate refugee” in the 19th century, they would be describing someone who had moved to a place where the climate is healthier or more congenial.
But in modern parlance, the meaning has shifted to reflect current global crises – now climate refugees are those who are forced to move in response to extreme weather or rising sea levels.
This is one of a number of new findings from research by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) into the origins of the words we use to talk about climate crisis.
Though we might think of it as a relatively contemporary phenomenon, lexicographers found that the changing climate has been a fixture of the English language for more than 150 years.
Indeed, the term “climate change” was first used in 1854 in an US magazine article which questioned whether human actions could alter the climate.
The 1980s saw the coining of the “greenhouse effect” but this was soon overtaken by “global warming”. And now “climate change” is in vogue once again after a “sharp and steady” 40-year boom, said Oxford Languages, which has produced an update of the OED.
The latest update also includes an entry for “global heating”, which the lexicographers said was used 15 times more in the first half of 2021 than the equivalent period in 2018.
Another key finding of the research, carried out ahead of global climate summit Cop26, which starts at the end of this month, was that the words we are using to describe the climate are becoming more urgent – between 2018 and 2020, the use of “climate crisis” increased nearly 20-fold and “climate emergency” 76-fold over the same period.
Trish Stewart, science editor at the Oxford English Dictionary said it had been “fascinating, if at times somewhat alarming, to delve deeper into the language we use, both now and in the past, to talk about climate and sustainability”.
“The very real sense of urgency that is now upon us is reflected in our language. What happens next depends on so many factors but, one thing we can be sure of is that our language will continue to evolve and to tell the story,” she said.