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American Speech 75.2 (2000) 215-221

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Let It Green:
The Ecoization of the Lexicon

Brad Benz


Arguably, the "greenwashing" of the English lexicon began in 1969 when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2 1989), two West German environmental groups formed two political parties: Grüne Aktion Zukunft 'Green Campaign for the Future' and grüne Listen 'Green Lists'. 1 Add to these groups the first "Earth Day" celebration on 22 April 1970, and perhaps the key "green" players are in place. If one of their goals was to raise awareness about the degradation of the environment--or "eco-consciousness"--then no doubt they were victorious, at least in terms of inserting green discourse into the language.

One such item, eco-, is firmly positioned in the lexicon. In the 1972 volume of American Speech, Russell and Porter provide written citations from 1971-73 for the following examples: eco-awareness, eco-Bag, eco-house, ecomodel, econut, and ecopolypse. Eco- continues to be a popular modifier in contemporary English and has become more diverse and flexible in its use as a combining form. A Lexis-Nexis search for eco- reveals that on 27 October 1998 London's Daily Telegraph ran a headline declaring "Energy Efficiency: Eco-homes Return to the Earth." Similarly, other headlines read: "Eco-terrorists Set Major Fire in Attack on Popular Ski Resort"; "German Truckers Battle Eco-tax"; and "Prairie Dog Symbolizes Plains Eco-War." Yet eco- is no longer solely rooted in the soil of environmental battles and has branched out and become a new line of marketing, as evidenced by the "Ecomall" on the Internet or the "Good Goods" mail order catalog, which specializes in eco-friendly "non-products" geared toward the consumers in the "eco-chic nineties."

Eco-chic? What is happening? Edward Abbey, green advocate and author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, would certainly be shaking his head in disgust: "eco-friendly" consumer products for the "eco-chic nineties"? If the Green Party, the celebrators of Earth Day, and proponents of eco-centrism like Abbey envisioned their work as promoting green awareness, then perhaps they would consider eco-'s position in the lexicon a small victory; but they might also be puzzled by the all-things-eco credo which has [End Page 215] proliferated. Given the continued destruction of the Earth, these green rhetors might not feel so victorious, despite the high frequency of the bound morpheme eco-. That is, eco- no longer solely refers to concern for the environment primarily because savvy marketers have exploited eco-'s original green connotations and have affixed eco- to the front of their products in an effort to sell more units, to increase consumption of their products--anti-eco actions to say the least. As the saying goes, talk (or text) is cheap.

The OED2 defines eco- as the "shortening of ecological, ecology, as in eco-activist, one who actively opposes the pollution, or destruction by other means, of the environment; ecocatastrophe, major damage to the environment, esp. when caused by human activity." The OED2 also defines ecocidal, ecocide, ecosystem, ecology, and ecofreak, recording the earliest written citations of the green eco- prefix as occurring on 2 October 1969, when eco-catastrophe was used in the New Scientist. But it does not list eco as a free morpheme. Other dictionary searches confirm this. For example, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary's (10th ed., 1993) entry for eco- reads: "comb[ining] form . . . 1: habitat or environment <ecospecies> 2: ecological or environmental <ecoterrorists>." So eco- remains a bound morpheme, according to the lexicographers. In terms like eco-tourism, eco-catastrophe, and eco-activist, the eco- prefix functions like a modifier, greening the root it is affixed to without changing the class of the word itself: eco-tourism 'tourism linked to the local natural resources'; eco-activist 'one who campaigns in favor of the environment'; eco-catastrophe 'devastating damage to the environment'. However, as eco-chic and eco-nonproducts reveal, eco- has moved away from its green connotation and into more commercial realms as eco-'s green activism...


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pp. 215-221
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Archived 2005
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