Finally remembered to search for the etymological roots of economy and ecology. Often wondered, but for some reason never looked. Turns out they are kind of related but not as clearly as I wondered.
“Economy” and “ecology”: the two words share a common etymological root just as the Miriam Webster Dictionary’s definitions suggest, but why do they point to perspectives that rarely seem to connect? Economy speaks of “use” where ecology harbours “relationships”.
From Economy and ecology on Open University which goes on…
In English, the word “economy” is usually traced to a sense of household management from the 16th century. It is then routed through a literature called political economy in the 18th century (Adam Smith, Malthus, etc.), later to be associated with the new field of economics.
Most histories trace the word “ecology” to 1866, when a biologist named Ernst Haeckel coined the word ökologie in German. It was translated as “ecology” in the 1870s, but outside academic contexts, the word remained uncommon in English until the 1960s.
If we accept these histories, the reason for the conceptual differences between the words would seem straightforward. Conceptually, “economy” draws from older traditions and contexts whereas “ecology” shows up as the clever new challenger.
That, however, is a very selective history. In effect, it obscures how thoroughly entangled the conceptual development of these two words has been. The entanglement is worth elaboration. We wonder about the health of the economy, experts measure the growth of the economy, and we hear political candidates complain about the economy.
In the 1930s however, “the economy” was a new concept. Adam Smith never used it. Through the 19th century press, “economy” was a measure of virtue, a quality that could be exercised. The word was synonymous with industriousness, efficiency, or frugality. It was only in the 20th century that a definite article began to appear regularly in front of the word: the economy of a nation, as if each country had a certain human ecosystem all to itself.
Crazy. I had no idea that the use of the two words was so recent. I imagined they’d been used as they are today for many hundreds if not a thousands of years. Two such wholly important words to almost everything in modern human existence.
Also funny, and very believable, to see the modern root of ‘ecology’ going back to Ernst Haeckel, who’s work was an effective meditation on the amazing and beautifully bizarre natural world:
Thinking more on the modern root of ‘economics’ has reminded me of the incredible Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists which I read last year, just over 100 years after it was published. It shows how recently that the ideas of a socialist society were popularised. Inconceivable in my mind now that some form of state level social support wouldn’t exist.