What does ‘Permaculture’ mean? Understanding ‘Portmanteau’ words.

permacultureClimate change and organic have become household words, but are you familiar with a related recent addition to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary?

The word permaculture (British English /ˈpɜːməkʌltʃə(r)/; North American English /ˈpɜːrməkʌltʃər/) was coined in the 1970s, and it is a portmanteau word, combining the beginning of permanent with the end of agriculture.  The OALD defines it as “an approach to life and growing food that copies the way things happen in nature in order to create ways for people to live without damaging the environment”. Many permaculture organizations promote permaculture as a way of imitating nature, reducing waste, and creating a healthier environment.

Permaculture is based on the idea of sustainability.  This can be difficult to achieve because single-use items have led to overflowing landfills.  Heavy pesticide use and monocultures have damaged biodiversity in many areas. Sometimes permaculture can help with the rewilding of some areas to encourage the return of wildlife and native plant species.

Do you know the other words highlighted below?

Terms which are now widely used include carbon footprint, which means “a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by the daily activities of a person or company”.  Microplastics are “extremely small pieces of plastic in the environment that come from consumer products and industrial waste”.

Businesses especially do not want to be named and shamed as polluters. This has led many companies to claim their products are sustainable or sustainably sourced: “involving the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment”. In fact, the All England Tennis Club at Wimbledon has recently installed a green wall, or living wall, at Court 1 to help promote biodiversity. This is “a structure covered in plants that can be attached to the wall of a building”.

Many other ‘green’ words begin with eco, which comes from the word ecology. Eco– is commonly used as a combining form to show that something has a connection with the environment.  Can you link these eco- words with their definitions?

A. Ecocide 1. a new town that is specially designed to make it easy for people to live there with as little impact on the environment as possible
B. Eco-friendly 2. fashionable design or clothing that is produced with concern for the environment
C. Eco-chic 3. not harmful to the environment
D. Eco-warrior 4. the destruction of the natural environment, especially when this is deliberate
E. Ecotown 5. organized holidays/vacations that are designed so that the tourists damage the environment as little as possible, especially when some of the money they pay is used to protect the local environment and animals
F. Ecotourism 6. a person who actively tries to prevent damage to the environment

The terms global heating and climate crisis are now being used in some cases instead of global warming.  Inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, even schoolchildren are using new terms, such as existential crisis, and protesting to demand that governments act immediately to stop damage to the environment.  Permaculture probably can’t stop an existential crisis on its own, but if these children grow up as eco-warriors, it will be in with a fighting chance.

To learn more words related to the environment, look at The natural world in the Topics list: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/topic/

(Answers: A-4, B-3, C-2, D-6, E-1, F-5).

Lindsey Bowden was Dictionaries Assistant and then an editor in OUP’s Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

This article was first published on 1 August 2019 on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries blog.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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