Definitions of Pollution

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Definitions of Pollution: William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor, 1852 (Image Credit: Royal Collection Trust)
William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor, 1852 (Image Credit: Royal Collection Trust)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pollution as ‘the presence in or introduction into the environment of harmful or poisonous substances, or excessive levels of light, noise, organic waste, especially by humans’. This meaning has changed over time, however.

Deriving from Latin and French, the word pollution has been used in the English language since the fourteenth century, where it was used to refer to spiritual or moral contamination, or, later, something that caused spiritual or physical contamination.

Frequently other terms were used to describe what we would now call pollution. For example, people would say that a river was ‘poisoned’. It was not until the late eighteenth century that the word pollution began to be used to refer to physical contamination. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a letter written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 as one of the earliest instances of the present-day meaning:

His various works, uncut, unthumbed, have been preserved free from all pollution.

It is interesting that this should come from one of the Romantic poets, as there are links between Romanticism and present-day environmentalism. Some of the literature on the poetry section of the website suggests the ways in which writers register both the beauty of the West Cork coastline but also threats to this environment.

It is only really in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that we start to see the use of the word ‘pollution’ emerge in the environmental sense. This coincides with the start of the Anthropocene epoch and the ongoing Industrial Revolution. Much has been written about pollution in relation to the industrial areas of Britain – for instance, as early as 1828 an article in The Times referred to a river being ‘in a state of pollution’ (25 January). However, pollution was occurring elsewhere, including Cork.

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