Oh look!  It’s Twitchy the Squirrel!  Hi Twitchy!

Dear Word Detective:  What is the history of the word “environment”?  Do the roots of the word have to do with the “mental” relationship with a landscape? — Ivy Roberts.

Not exactly.  But that’s not to say that mental functioning doesn’t play a role in how we perceive our environment, of course.  Take my neighbors.  Many of them fervently believe that government environmental regulations are unnecessary and meddlesome.  Fair enough.  But these same folks also believe that the big bad government has wisely outlawed absolutely anything that could possibly hurt them.  So they cheerfully dump mass quantities of all sorts of exotic chemicals on their lawns, houses, pets and children, cheerfully maintaining that “If Blast-Off (t-prandothyraxidizonexythiol 86) were even a little dangerous, it would be illegal.”  As we used to say on our family farm in Brooklyn, go figure.

Meanwhile, back at “environment,” your hunch about the significance of that “ment” at the end is entirely reasonable.  But the problem with “reverse engineering” English words that way is that parts of our words that appear to come from other words don’t always come from those words.  We have a lot of different words with bits that look alike.

In the case of “environment,” the “ment” appears at first glance to be connected to “mental,” which is rooted in the Latin “mens,” meaning “mind,” which came from the Indo-European root “men,” meaning “to think.”  That same root “men” also gave us “memory,” “mind,” “remind,” and even “mathematics” (via the Greek “manthanein,” meaning “to learn”).

But the “ment” in “environment” has no connection with the “mental” family tree.  This “ment,” in fact, is a standard English suffix that crops up in dozens of other words, including “accomplishment,” “enhancement,” “settlement” and “excitement.”  The suffix “ment” converts a verb (or sometimes an adjective) to a noun meaning “the result of or product of” whatever the verb was.  Thus if something “excites” (a verb), the result is “excitement.”  If settlers “settle” somewhere, you get a “settlement.”

So “environment” must be, in some sense, be the result or effect of “environ,” but what does that mean?  In modern English usage, we speak of our “environs,” using the word as a noun to mean “the surrounding area” (“Without having once seen the sun shine on the city or its environs,” 1847).  But “environ” is also a verb meaning “to surround, to form a ring around, to envelop or enclose” (derived from the Old French “en” plus “viron,” circle).  So our  “environment” is the things that “environ” us, that encircle or surround us, whether just within a few feet (e.g., an “office environment”) or on the Earth as a whole (air, plants, animals, etc.).  When “environment” first appeared in English in the early 17th century, it meant simply “the act or state of being encircled.”  The more general sense of “the things or area surrounding something” dates to the 19th century, and “environmentalism” and “environmentalist” both date to the 1970s.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page