Sunday, January 4, 2009


Colours seem to lend themselves to metaphor-based meanings. A sad person is blue, while an angry one sees red. Such turns of phrase handily avoid unintentional ambiguity—they’re poetic because they generally describe things that aren’t actually those colours.

Today, however, clarity of meaning is increasingly threatened by the widespread adoption of a colourful buzzword with the best of intentions but little quality control: ‘green.’

As perhaps the most mainstream manifestation of the environmental protection movement, ‘green’ is being applied to all sorts of things, from office buildings to dietary habits. The more frequently it is simply attached to any given noun, however, the higher the risk for clumsy ambiguity.

For instance, a greenhouse is commonly known to be a transparent building wherein plants are grown—but as today’s homeowners seek to reduce their energy bills through efficiency-minded renovations, they follow the model of so-called ‘green houses,’ i.e. recent examples of environmentally friendlier architecture. Thus, these are houses predominantly for people, not plants.

Another linguistic paradox can be found in ‘green revolution,’ a term that’s been around long enough to be defined by dictionaries as both (a) the growth of environmental concerns, generally in industrialized countries, and (b) the trend toward higher-yield crop production, particularly in developing countries, by using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that are certainly not environmentally friendly.

Such contradictions will likely be worked out over time, but not without some reduction of the current mania for green hype (hopefully without reducing anyone’s actual commitment to the cause of environmental protection, which deserves to be far more than a fad).

In the meantime, we’re stuck with the likes of CBC’s current project One Million Acts of Green, which manages to mistreat an adjective as a noun. Consider how clearly obnoxious is the grammar of, say, ‘One Million Acts of Happy’—yet such misuse of ‘green’ seems to be given, by much of society, a green light.

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