Watching Language Change

The word resilience (as a Google search term, see graphs below) overtook sustainable development about five years ago in the United States (somewhat more recently in the English-searching world at large). Sustainable development and sustainability (as terms in books indexed in Google Ngram) were running neck-and-neck in the early 1990s but began diverging somewhere between the mid-1990s (Ngram) and mid-2000s (Google trends). Sustainability now dominates, sustainable development may be on the way out, and resilience might be stealing market share from them both.

This apparent unhitching of sustainable from development (and rise of sustainability) correlates with Robert Engleman’s description (State of the World 2013, chapter 1) of the rise of what he calls “sustainababble”:

For many years after the release of the Brundtland Commission’s report [in 1987], environmental analysts debated the value of such complex terms as sustainable, sustainability, and sustainable development. By the turn of the millennium, however, the terms gained a life of their own—with no assurance that this was based on the Commission’s definition. Through increasingly frequent vernacular use, it seemed, the word sustainable became a synonym for the equally vague and unquantifiable adjective green, suggesting some undefined environmental value, as in green growth or green jobs.

Google Trends

  • sustainability
  • sustainable development
  • resilience

Worldwide, 2004 – May 2013img gtrends ww

United States, 2004 – May 2013img gtrends us

Google Ngram (books, English), 1980 – 2008img gngram

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