This is another shady* word, used in bonam partem in order to sell goods, especially food, and a word that students need to beware of. It might be thought that this is a recent usage— one that is a reaction to food technology, additives, preservatives and processing.

But the OED, in its long and complex entry for the word natural, reveals that it has been used to mean ‘free from artifice or enhancement’ since the 16th century, whether of wood, fabrics, food, the human body or generally of human behaviour—and has seemingly implied approval.

One of our students lent me an engaging work of reference called Mind the Gaffe, which is a compilation of common errors in standard written English, more detailed and scholarly than most works of its kind. When the author comes to the word natural, he says that ‘the word is often used foolishly or even dishonestly, especially in advertising, and above all in connection with foods, medicines and hygiene. The usual suggestion is that there exists a class of natural substances and practices which are invariably wholesome, as opposed to those produced or engineered by human beings, which are invariably harmful.’

This, he says, is nonsense, and he goes on to list some of the organisms that cause fatal diseases and which are wholly the product of nature, along with earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes etc.—and the vermin that destroy crops, and the droughts that devastate farms.

There is a trap, he points out, ‘of using natural as an all-purpose term of approval, and its opposite artificial as an all-purpose term of abuse.’ People who fall into this error, he suggests, ‘should be invited to spend a year in a remote third-world village with no running water, no sewers, no electricity and no medical treatment…’

It seems a good example of how the use of a word can come to reflect a general misconception, along with phlogiston, scrying and elixir.

The Latin adjective for natural as an antonym of artificial is, perhaps unexpectedly, nativus.

Of interest:
Professor R.L.Trask, Mind the Gaffe, Penguin Reference, 2001


*For this expression, see earlier post: