Earth or 'the earth': What's in a Name?

Earth from Space

The observation that "language structures reality" has been made by linguists and psychologists as well as anthropologists and cultural historians for several decades. Our experience of the world—what we see or don't see, what is understood as ultimately real—is shaped by the language we use. Those of us who have only one word for "white precipitation in winter" (i.e., "snow") experience this phenomenon differently from those who have many names for it, depending upon its nature and context, such as the Inuit (Eskimos) of Alaska. Our language both reveals our worldview and reinforces certain attitudes toward life, as feminist writers have repeatedly shown. Centuries of common use notwithstanding, for many the word "man," used to refer to our species as a whole, is not experienced as inclusive of fully half of humanity.

Because language structures reality, how we refer to "the third planet out from the Sun" can make a world of difference, literally, regarding our perception and experience of it. Each of the other planets of our solar system has a proper name: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and so on. So does Earth. We do not hear people talking about "the jupiter," "the mars," or "the saturn." Why, then, do we speak of "the earth"? Here is the historical answer, in a nutshell...

When those names took hold, Earth was not understood to be a planet. Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter were magnificent "wandering stars" (which is what the word "planet" originally meant) distinguished from the massive population of "fixed stars" that never moved in relation to one another.  The wandering stars and fixed stars all moved en masse around us and the rock and soil on which we stood: the earth. Of course we now know that this sphere of rock and soil wanders no less through the heavens than do Venus and Saturn. More, using the definite article "the" in front of an uncapitalized "earth" subtly reinforces the perception that we are separate from and fundamentally different than the planet. But this is not really the case.

From a purely scientific perspective, we humans are not so much separate beings on Earth as we are a mode of being, or an expression, of Earth. We did not come into this world; we grew out from it in the same way an apple grows out from an apple tree. Said another way, the planet is not our surroundings, it's our source. Earth is the larger body of which we are an organic, but by no means indispensable, part. It is our larger Self. As physicist Brian Swimme is fond of saying, "Four billion years ago, planet Earth was molten rock; now it sings opera."

To refer to the literal ground of our being, the source and substance of our life, as "the earth" is to objectify it. Such objectification encourages us to continue seeing "the earth" merely as a resource for human consumption. On the other hand, by using the planet's proper name, "Earth," we honor its integrity as a creative, self-organizing system. (Some refer to the planetary biosystem as a whole as "Gaia," the name of the ancient Greek goddess who symbolized Mother Earth, for the same reason.) It is important to note here that this is far more than a question of semantics; it can be seen as a question of honor—which may be one of the most important questions before us as we in these early years of the 21st century. As the late geologian Thomas Berry insisted,

"The world we live in is an honorable world. To refuse this deepest instinct of our being, to deny honor where honor is due, to withdraw reverence from divine manifestation, is to place ourselves on a head-on collision course with the ultimate forces of the universe. This question of honor must be dealt with before any other question that is before us. We miss both the intrinsic nature and the order of magnitude of the issue if we place our response to the present crisis of our planet on any other basis. It is not ultimately a political or economic or scientific or psychological issue. It is ultimately a question of honor."

Following Berry, I would submit that only the sense of the violated honor of Earth and the need to restore this honor can evoke the understanding as well as the energy needed to carry out the renewal of the planet in any effective manner.

So what's in a name? Much! Of course, changing our language will not bring humanity into a mutually enhancing relationship with the larger community of life all by itself. But if changing both our worldview and our relationship to Nature is as important as many of us sense that it is, then changing our language may be a significant step in the right direction. As we drop the definite article "the" from our speech, and as we capitalize "Earth" both in our minds and in print, I believe future generations of Earth-life cheer us on with gratitude.

NOTE: I wrote this piece nearly twenty years ago. Here is where it lives on Connie's and my Great Story website.