In his op-ed for the Times, Klinkenborg disagreed: “In some ways carbon footprint is not an especially good metaphor. The carbon in question — the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming — is a gas and far too diffuse to resemble an actual footprint. Still, the phrase sounds conscientious. You feel as though you’re reducing global warming by saying it.”

It has become a “righteous metaphor of great potency,” wrote Robert Fulford in Canada’s National Post. He meant that derisively, though, and criticized writers who bandy the term about in order to “establish themselves as highly ethical and up-to-date.” Fulford’s headline, a seeming response to such wordsmithing, was, “How about my footprint on your magniloquent rear?”

Despite his antipathy, Fulford offers an interesting account of the etymology of the “footprint” metaphor. In the 1960s it described the landing area for spacecraft, or, in architectural jargon, the land covered by a building; in the 1970s it described the “sonic footprint” (or noise pollution) of aircraft; and in the 1990s it described the area covered by broadcasting satellites before assuming its current, ecological significance.

It’s an ordinary old word that has completed a long, tedious journey from everyday language to Word Heaven, where it’s now in regular use by scientists, politicians, high-class journalists and all-around freelance moralists.

For better or worse, that is indeed true. I tend to think that it is for better, however, insofar as terms like “carbon footprint” and “green” (the latter of which is far more ambiguous and prone to abuse) have helped foster the environmental zeitgeist that pervades much of the world today. Nonetheless, the rhetoric beat is important and journalists have a responsibility to remember it whenever new buzzwords appear.


More in The Observatory

Beyond Energy Stump Speeches

Read More »

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.