How the word “climate” has changed

Rooted in a Greek verb meaning “to slope,” climate originally referred to seven latitudinal zones spanning the Earth.  

On Thursday, President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 landmark effort to combat climate change joined by nearly 200 countries—minus Syria, Nicaragua, and, now, the US. Where does the word climate come from it, and how has it changed over the years? 

Climate is all about “slopes”: temperatures up, Earth down. (Pixabay)

Greek “leanings”

As with many English words, climate follows a steady etymological slope from French (climat) to Latin (clima) to Greek (κλίμα, klima). Latin and Greek used climat- and klimat-, respectively, as stems onto which they added their various case endings, hence the T in the French and English spellings.

In Ancient Greek, klima literally meant “inclination” or “slope.” Early scientists believed different latitudinal zones made up the habitable regions of Earth, sloping from the equator to the poles. The Greek philosopher Aristotle developed a theory of five climates (or climes, also derived from klima) and the Roman-Egyptian Ptolemy one of seven, each corresponding to an increase in 30 minutes in the longest day of the year. Modern climatology, of course, has a more sophisticated understanding and classification of climate, but latitude is still a principal factor—and antiquity’s knowledge of a spherical earth still quite impressive.

Greek’s klima is rooted in the verb κλίνειν (klinein), “to slope, lean, or incline.” Via the Proto-Indo-European *klei– (lean), the very words lean and incline are related. Off the Germanic branch, *klei ultimately yields the Old English hlinian (lie down, rest), source of lean. Off the Italic, Latin gets clinare (lean, bend), base of incline and decline, and clivus (slope), which shows up in words like proclivity. Other forms of the root *klei– in Greek gives us clinic (kline, “bed”), clitoris (kleitoris, possibly “little hill”), and climax (klimax, originally “ladder”).

Steep inclines?

Climate is evidenced in English in the late 1390s, first used in the ancient “seven zones” sense. The zones became associated with regions, the regions with their weather, and so by the late 1500s, climate settled into its modern “weather” sense. Speaking of change, we’ve been concerned with (the phrase) climate change since the mid-1800s. As the Oxford English Dictionary cites an 1854 edition of the United States Magazine of Science, Art, Manufactures, Agriculture, Commerce and Trade: “Some have ascribed these climate changes to agriculture—the cutting down the dense forests—the exposure of the upturned soil to the summer sun, and the draining of the great marshes.”

Among the business community, scientists, and the broader public, nay, globe, Trump’s decision to pull the US from the Paris Agreement met with a climate of disappointment and dismay. This metaphorical extension of climate (prevailing opinion) has been been in use since the mid-1600s—and I hope, as Earth’s climate continues to heat up, so, too, will the political climate on Trump’s fateful choice.

m ∫ r ∫


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