New York Times Traces Footprint’s Evolving Meaning

07/01/2010 06:10 PM

What does the word “footprint” mean? Today, it’s likely to refer less to the tread mark your sneaker leaves in the dirt, and more to the imprint you’ll leave on the planet. So says word maven William Safire in a recent “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. In the February 17 column, Safire traces the word’s journey from its literal meaning to the metaphoric significance it has gained in recent years as a measure of environmental impact.

Global Footprint Network’s Executive Director Mathis Wackernagel, who has been working on the Ecological Footprint for 17 years, told Safire that BP’s carbon Footprint campaign in 2005 was one of the biggest boons to the term’s popular use. Safire credits Wackernagel and former colleague William Rees with helping give the word its ecological connotations, and tells the story of how Rees [with Wackernagel] was writing a scientific paper in 1992 when he admired the “smaller footprint” that a new computer model made upon his desk and was struck by a flash of inspiration. With a few quick edits to his paper, the term Ecological Footprint was born, and, a resource accounting methodology and Footprinting movement has followed.

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