An Origin Story

Understood this way, humility is about being lowly and close to the ground. Which makes it the perfect word for environmentalists.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had taken five years of Latin. In case there was any lingering doubt in your mind about whether I’m a nerd, this should settle the matter.

I enjoyed my years of Latin, though I remember little at this point. Those classes were over a decade ago, after all. That said, a few lessons have stayed with me, in particular some lessons on the etymology, or linguistic origin, of various English words. It turns out that a lot of our language can be traced back to Latin, with some surprising origin stories for words.

For instance, consider the English word “sinister.” Today, the word brings to mind someone or something that is menacing, dark or conniving. The word comes from the Latin word of the same spelling, which surprisingly means “left,” as in the opposite of “right.”

That’s quite a leap – a word that simply describes a direction morphs into a word with significant negative connotations. How does that happen? Well, the Latin “sinister” was often used when referring to left-handed people, who have a long history of being distrusted in various cultures. Fortunately, that stigma is largely gone today, though the negative meaning of English “sinister” still persists.

So that bit of trivia has nothing to do with anything environmental, but it does set me up to talk about the origin of another word that does. That word is “humility.”

In English, we know this word as meaning a modest opinion of one’s own importance. The Latin root word is “humus,” which has an even simpler meaning – “ground,” as in the earth under our feet.

Understood this way, humility is about being lowly and close to the ground. Which makes it the perfect word for environmentalists.

We profess a love of the earth and all of its growing things. We appreciate the quiet and gentleness of nature. We are drawn to its beauty, which is not pompous or arrogant. Rather, it is the humility of the earth that endears us so.

Yet too often, whether justified or not, environmentalists are accused of being “holier than thou.” We claim to know a “right” way of living, whether that involves recycling, composting, zero waste, energy efficiency, public transportation, etc. Some even view us as having a self-righteous and self-serving agenda.

Such a perception doesn’t mean that we are wrong. It does mean, however, that we must labor tirelessly to defeat this perception. How? By embracing the virtue of humility in all that we do.

So let us return to the origin of the word. Let us remember that what we strive to protect is also the perfect example of how to live. Let us love the earth, and do so humbly.