English Word Series: Nature

The word ‘nature’ is over 5000 years old but it has only been used in the English language for 700 years.  The word was adopted from Old French which meant, ‘course of things, character, the universe, and birth’.  This word originally came from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘*gene’, ‘to give birth, or beget’.  Since 1300, ‘nature’ has been used in the English language to mean ‘essential qualities and innate disposition’ as well as the ‘creative power in the material world’.  

One of the earliest uses of ‘nature’ that is still used today was to describe ‘the inherent or dominating power or impulse which drives a person or other living organism’.  This original sense of the word was used since the late 14th century and is similar to the present use, ‘Men have a physical as well as spiritual nature’ (1872).  ‘Nature’ expanded throughout the centuries to mean an assortment of specific qualities of a person also, including their physical strength or constitution, their sexual drive, and their physical appetite.

By the late Middle English period ‘nature’ described the will of the body which was believed to not be controllable, ‘T’was nature, sir, whose strong behest impelled me to the deed’ (late 19th century).  The term ‘second nature’ has existed since 1390 and means to literally ‘follow nature’- another term created by medieval Aristotelian philosophy to describe human personality.  The word ‘supernatur(e)al’ has existed since 1450 and originally meant, ‘above nature, belonging to a higher realm’.  This was once used with a more religious sense, but after 1799 it was predominantly used to talk about ghosts and other phenomenon.

From the late 18th century, ‘nature’ has been contrasted with ‘nurture’ in the scientific debate concerning what determines individual differences- either an individual’s hereditary personality and traits (‘nature’) or their life experiences (‘nurture’).  In this scientific debate the word ‘nature’ has adopted the meaning ‘heredity influence on or determinant of personality’.  This innate power is supposed to control physical and mental activities to the point that ‘nature’ is seen to describe the innate power behind ‘action and character’.

The meaning of the word ‘nature’ has always had the closest ties to the material world and the planet earth.  ‘Nature’ is seen to describe, ‘the immediate cause of all the world’s phenomena’ be it plants, animals, or human beings.  From the early 19th century ‘nature’ was used to describe the fidelity or close adherence to the ‘natural’ state of planet earth, ‘we derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of nature’ (1835).  A hundred years later this idea was adopted by ‘Naturists’ who became part of the movement for communal nudity.