Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
With cities around the world charting record temperatures daily, thoughts and conversations about the Earth’s climate are abundant. It might surprise many to learn that the word climate began its existence not as a term from meteorology but from geography.
The ancient Greeks recognized that the position of the sun shifted as one traveled north or south, and from this information, early mathematicians and geographers deduced that the land sloped from the equator to the poles. In Greek, the word for “slope” was klima, derived further from the word klinein “to lean.”
Based on the idea of the land’s slope, ancient geographers divided the surface of the Earth into bands called klima based on the angle of the sun and the length of the day, a division visually similar to modern lines of latitude. Observers were divided over how many of these regions there should be; Aristotle, for example, theorized that there were 5, while others claimed as many as 30.
Regardless, klima became the Latin clima, which begot the French climat, which was adopted into Middle English in the 14th century as climate — and all this time it referred to a section of the Earth’s surface as measured by lines running parallel to the equator.
But as travelers journeyed from one climate to another, a change other than the amount of daylight was noticeable: As one trekked farther north, the weather generally got colder and wetter. Over time, the weather within a particular climate became more important than any geological division, so that by the 16th century, the word climate was used to refer to the prevailing weather conditions of a particular place — the climate of the climate change discussions of today.
Once this usage was established, English didn’t wait long before it tapped a metaphorical sense of the word. By the 1660s, we find the use of climate to refer to the mental, moral, or political atmosphere of a group of people, such as the political climate that too often colors discussions about climate change.
Featured image: Sven Hansche / Shutterstock
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