The United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019 certainly made the news cycle interesting this week, pitting young climate activists against global leaders who still mostly shrug at making any real commitments to addressing the effects at climate change. We saw this week that most of the countries who signed the Paris climate agreement in 2015 are having difficulty meeting those targets while global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
So the UN brought more than 60 world leaders to the Summit to hash out some of these issues.
Summit is an interesting word to also be a synonym for conference or gathering. The word entered English from the Middle French somete, probably around the 14th or 15th century. Somete meant the top or peak of something, like the very tippy-top of a hill or mountain. Somete is technically a diminuitive form of the French word som or sum, which means the highest part; so a somete is the smallest part of the top.
The base word sum comes from the Latin summum, meaning highest, which is also related to the word super.
But it was in 1950 that Winston Churchill, frustrated with the inaction of the Cold War — a stalemate the Churchill blamed on vast bureaucracies—recalled the more cordial meetings he had with Roosevelt and Stalin during World War II. So, to move diplomacy along in the Cold War, Churchill suggested a “parley at the summit,” which was less of a call to meet at a mountaintop, and more of a call to those top-level leaders who reside at the summit of their governments to parley.
For the next few decades, a summit was primarily used in diplomatic and political circles. In the late 1980s, Reagan and Bush Sr. started using the word for any kind of discussion with stakeholders, not just the highest top-level leaders, of hot-button issues: Reagan’s “economic summit” in 1988, Bush’s “education summit” in 1989, and so on.
Which brings us to 2019’s UN Climate Change summit, which, yes, did bring together 60 top-level (summit-level) administrators, but also gathered policy experts, activists and children.
Making several headlines this week was one of these youth activists: Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old environmental activist from Sweden, who has made quite the impact over the past few years with her protests, strikes and speeches.
Thunberg’s speech at the UN was particularly incisive and fiercely delivered. Part of her speech’s rhetorical effect relies on her repetition of the word “dare," as in “how dare you.”
Dare is the modern spelling of the Old English durran, which originally meant to be bold or to have courage. Its spelling was changed slightly by speakers of Middle English to daren to reflect the subtle shift in vowel pronunciation.
The Proto-Germanic source is ders, probably from the Proto-Indo-European dhers, which meant bold. You can see this root in other languages’ words for bold: Greek thrasys, Persian dars, and the Lithuanian dristi.
For centuries, though, dare was primarily used for such a bold or courageous action. By the 1570s, we see the meaning of dare to challenge or defy someone in order to move them to action, as in “I dare you to cut back your carbon emissions.” The assumption behind that meaning is that the person you are talking to lacks the courage or boldness to accept your challenge.
But the sense that Thunberg is using the word dare—as in “How dare you!”—appears in English as early as the 13th century, when it was spelled: “Hu durre ze.”
Thunberg wasn’t the only young person challenging the summit leaders. Komal Kumar spoke of the climate crisis’s effect on her home island of Fiji; Bruno Rodriquez from Argentina declared, “Enough is enough” of leaders’ inaction; and Wanjuhi Njoroge warned of a revolution as he highlighted the loss of forest cover in Kenya.
Njoroge’s inspiring message concluded with a call to action: “Be the hummingbird that puts out the forest fire.”
Hummingbirds were named so by English explorers on the American continent in the 17th century, but Native Americans had already names for the bird: Cherokee walela and Lakota tah nah he lah, for instance.
For the English, hommen (from which we get hum) referred to a murmuring sound one would make to cover their embarrassment. By 1884, it also came to mean busy and active, like the humming of a beehive.
Perhaps Njoroge’s on to something here. We could be more active when it comes to climate change, making up for the embarrassment of previous generations’ failure to act.