Q: My dictionary says nature is the entire physical universe. But for most of us, nature is what’s out there and not human. My question (which I don’t expect answered) is thus: When did we humans look around and say, “That’s not us—it’s nature”?
A: You’re right. We can’t tell you when the first human beings said, in whatever prehistoric language they were speaking, “That’s not us—it’s nature.”
But we can tell you when English speakers began referring to the physical world, as opposed to humans and their creations, as “nature.” It was around 600 years ago. Here’s the story.
English borrowed the noun “nature” in the 13th century from the Anglo-Norman and Old French word nature, but its ultimate source is Latin, where natura meant birth, constitution, character, the physical world, and many other things.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that natura and nature had many earthy meanings in Latin and Anglo-Norman.
In classical Latin, for example, natura could mean the genitals, while in medieval Latin, it could mean the need to urinate or defecate; in Anglo-Norman, nature could mean semen or menstrual discharge.
Those bodily senses carried over into English, where “nature” at one time or another meant excrement, semen, menstrual discharge, the female genitals, sexual desire, and female sexual secretions.
Those senses are now obsolete or rare, but one earthy meaning is still with us: the need to urinate or defecate, as in “the call of nature.”
When “nature” first showed up in English, according to the OED, it referred to the “vital or physical powers of a person; a person’s physical strength or constitution.”
The earliest example in the dictionary is from a Kentish sermon, written around 1275: “Þe nature of Man is of greater strengþe and of greater hete ine þo age” (“The nature of Man is of greater strength and greater promise in early age”).
A little over a century later, “nature” came to mean the “inherent dominating power or impulse in a person by which character or action is determined, directed, or controlled,” according to the OED.
The earliest Oxford citation for this sense is from “The Tale of Melibeus” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “Nature defendeth and forbedeth by right that no man make hym self riche vn to the harm of another persone.”
Around the same time, “nature” took on the sense of the “innate or characteristic disposition of a particular person, animal, etc.,” the OED says.
In Confessio Amantis, a poem written by John Gower sometime before 1393, Morpheus is described as someone “whos nature Is forto take the figure Of what persone that him liketh.”
Rather than describe all the many meanings of “nature,” we’ll skip ahead to the sense you’ve asked about, which the OED defines as the “phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Cleanness, an anonymous Middle English poem, written around 1400, about married life. The citation here refers to the infant Jesus:
“Þe ox & þe asse … knewe hym by his clannes for Kyng of nature” (“The ox and the ass knew him by his purity for the King of nature”).
We’ll end with a 20th-century example from The Age of Gods, a 1928 study by the British historian Christopher Dawson about prehistoric culture:
“Man was entirely at the mercy of nature—a mere scavenger who eked out a miserable existence as a food-gatherer and an eater of shell-fish.”