Maybe Soil is Dirt After All: Words REALLY Do Matter

Image credit: Slow Muse

Wow. Clearly I am not the only one who spends too much time thinking about language. My post yesterday on why soil is not dirt garnered a whole bunch of responses —from those who agreed that "dirt" suggests a dead, inanimate substrate, to others who felt that "soil" is a prissy term, and "dirt" seems more real. I even had one friend email me and muse about the reclaiming of "dirt" as a positive term, much how others have reclaimed "queer" or "bitch". And a Palestinian friend and client informed me that in his culture, soil is considered the next purest thing to water.

So what can we learn from this debate?For one, we can safely say that words really do matter. As commenter David put it, there's "a genuine connection between what something is called and what people think about it." So it's OK for us environmentalists to spend time debating semantics, because how we shape our language will ultimately shape our culture. And how we shape our culture will inevitably influence how we treat the ecosystems we rely on for survival. (My skeptic, denier, denialist post was worth it after all...)

Having said that. We can't be prescriptive. Language is alive, it's diverse, and it is impossible to pin down. As evidenced by yesterday's discussion, when I think of "dirt" as an inanimate, lifeless substrate, somebody else thinks about it as a bacteria-rich mix of goodness that his or her ancestors have been toiling in for generations. And we are both right.

The other lesson learned is that many people really do value their, errm, earth, with a passion. From SunFedBrian's warnings of Peak Soil, to Chris' musings about compost as being like yogurt, there was a depth and an elegance to the way people discussed soil/dirt and its relevance to them. I can't imagine a similarly passionate discussion about whether a spade should be called a shovel, or whether zucchini is the same as a courgette.

Maybe there is hope for our soils after all...

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