words Nature

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The Independent Online
Mandy Allwood, the woman who conceived eight babies at one go, is reported to have said that she "wanted nature to take its course". This would have shocked the romantics. Poets like James ("Seasons") Thomson always referred to nature as "she" not "it"; so did most people with any sensibility. I suppose it would now be called sexist.

The Romantic Movement and the anti-abortionist lobby have at least one thing in common: a belief that nature is not to be trifled with (though in this particular case it might be felt that the fertility clinic had tampered with it enough already). Both exemplify Wordsworth's idea of nature (or Nature, with a capital) as something outside of, and better than, us humans, who keep on trying to subvert it, perhaps by building horrible cities all over it. Or as Wordsworth's contemporary Bishop Heber, the hymn-writer, put it, "every prospect pleases and only man is vile", forgetting that the prospects that pleased him were probably man-made anyway. The Romans who coined the word took a broader view. Natura was not just birds, bees and scenery, but the entire physical world and every creature in it, including man. It was the whole of science, and the universe itself. It wasn't good or bad, it was how things were.

People who say things like "What is the nature of your complaint?" may sound pompous but they are only reverting to the first meaning of the word. Natura came from nasci, to be born; natu is the Latin for "by birth". Cranmer's Christmas prayer about the Messiah "taking our nature upon him" echoes this. Not that Cranmer would have gone along with those in the nature-nurture debate who argue that our natures are immutable (innate, as you might say), and therefore not our personal responsibility - an odd mixture of old-fashioned superstition and pseudo-science.

Nicholas Bagnall