This article is a preview from the Summer 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

global (from Latin globus, meaning “round mass, sphere, ball”)

On 17 January 2017, Theresa May expressed the hope that Britain would become a “great, global trading nation”, a “truly global Britain”. This sense of the word, meaning “related to the whole world”, started cropping up in the mid-19th century with talk of “global power” and by 1892 Harper’s Magazine could talk of someone having “global ambition”.

The word “globe” first appeared in English in around 1450 to describe how, when St Martin was at Mass, “a burning globe appeared above his head”. The Earth is first described specifically as a “globe” in 1553 and around then it was applied to the Moon, the Sun and other planets too. People who hate new-fangled Americanisms like, say, “globe-wise” may be keen to know that that phrase first crops up in 1576.

The economic sense of the word, as in “globalisation”, can be found in the late 1950s in thrilling phrases such as “globalisation of quotas”. However, the present phase of seeing the world as a “globalised market” comes later, in the early 1970s.

“Going global” seems to be a 21st-century expression but “global warming” started a long time ago. “Global warming trends” were spotted in a US newspaper in 1952 when it was noted that “not a single iceberg was sighted last year south of Parallel 46”, and five years later it was reckoned in another US newspaper that “radical climate changes” could result from “large scale global warming”. Presumably these newspapers weren’t Donald Trump’s childhood reading.

As May used the word twice within a few seconds, we can guess that she wanted us to like “global”: global is good. There is an irony here. Commentators say one reason some people voted for Brexit was that they disliked the consequences of globalisation: people coming to live in Britain; British industries relocating. May must have been confident that these anti-global feelings wouldn’t surface when she gleefully announced our arrival as a great, global nation. But then, we usually give politicians free rein with their deeply held contradictions.