Environment

The 20th century was kind to this chronically amorphous word, anointing it with an –ism and giving it a precise meaning for the first time in its 400-year history in the English language. For most of those centuries, the word was so general it could be defined in only the vaguest terms: “the objects or the region surrounding anything” was the best The Oxford English Dictionary could do.

The result was that anything from the dog house to Bauhaus to interstellar space was an environment of one kind or another. Even “surroundings” was a more specific word — at least it demanded some notion of who or what was being surrounded. Then came “environmentalism,” a movement with a scientific head on its shoulders. For a time, environmentalists almost managed to corral this vast word into a bounded pen of orderly meanings: natural habitats, atmospheric layers, clusters of interdependent organisms sharing a physical locale.

No matter; at its root, ENVIRONMENT could still mean just about anything, and its sheer wispiness has made it nearly irresistible to foundation writers who like to describe areas of activity without being forced to put clear boundaries around them. Instead of working in schools or teacher colleges, they prefer the instructional environment. Disdaining anything so limiting as the arts and humanities, they thrive in the cultural environment. Ill at ease among doctors and hospitals, they feel right at home in the health care environment. The beauty of the un-ism’d ENVIRONMENT is that everything belongs and nothing is excluded.

Wander off the campuses and schoolyards, and you could travel for miles without ever leaving the “educational environment.” Are insurance companies part of the “cultural environment”? Are software developers part of the “health care environment”? Are all of them part of the “urban environment”? Of course!

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