Lost Words…?

Macfarlane1

I read recently that the British writer Robert Macfarlane – whose work I know primarily through his wonderful adult non-fiction book Landmarks – has published a children’s book titled The Lost Words.  It’s large (11×15), lushly illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it includes twenty acrostic poems (“…not poems but spells,” Macfarlane states in the preface, “of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.”)

The twenty words were selected from a longer list of words deleted in 2007 from the  Oxford Junior English Dictionary “in order to make room for more modern words.” Here is a list of the words Macfarlane singled out, along with a few words from his spells, and some photos I gathered. Imagine kids not growing up with these words…

ACORN

macfarlane8-acorn

ADDER

BLUEBELL

macfarlane8-bluebells

BRAMBLE

CONKER

DANDELION

Macfarlane9-dandelion

(“tick-tock, sun clock”)

dandelion

FERN

HEATHER

macfarlane14-heather

HERON

macfarlane10-great-blue-heron-2

IVY

Old house covered by ivy in Paris, France

KINGFISHER 

macfarlane17-kingfisher

(“colour-giver, fire bringer, flame-flicker, // river’s quiver…ripple-calmer, / water-nester, evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer….” )

LARK

MAGPIE

macfarlane15-Black-billed_Magpie_01

NEWT

OTTER

macfarlane12-otter

“Ever dreamed of being otter? That utter underwater thunderbolter, that shimmering twister?”

RAVEN

STARLING

WEASEL

WILLOW

Spring at Dows Lake Park

WREN

macfarlane16-wren

Acorn? Dandelion? Ivy? Otter? Weasel? Kids don’t use these words anymore? I guess many don’t. The words, along with others, were deleted from the OED Junior to make room for high-tech words that kids now use more frequently: block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, MP-3 player, voicemail.

But herons, ferns, newts – what happens when we lose the names for things? Do we lose the ability bit by bit to notice them? Do we lose the ability to care about them?

One of the best discussions about these deletions/additions (filled with explanations from the OED Junior editors, and protests from people like Margaret Atwood) can be read at the Fact Check page of this Snopes site  – Snopes is where people go to check out stories they can’t be sure are true. Can this story about words from nature being deleted from the dictionary be true? Yes, says Snopes, it’s true.

So – is the real crime the fact that the Junior OED deleted the words, or the fact that we don’t get our kids out into a world where they need to know these words? Where they can collect acorns and make troll faces out of them, where they  recognize what kind of bird is referenced in “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” where they know what the names of the flowers in their May baskets are, where they walk through a forest and can say to whoever they’re with, “Look at all the ferns…”?

It’s not about going back to word choices that are stiff and archaic. And I don’t want to return to the past and make anything great again. I welcome the word “blog” – here I am, after all, blogging away. So I’m not nostalgic for a lost world. Just for lost words. And for an attitude of inclusion rather than exclusion.

To send you off, here is one of Macfarlane’s spells, written for the tiny acorn – I love both the object and the word (and now, the spell):

Acorn

As flake is to blizzard, as

Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as

One is to many, as coin is to money, as
bird is to flock, as

Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as

Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as
feather is to flight, as light is to star, as
kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

[As usual, I’m thrilled by both content and technique – love the internal rhymes and near-rhymes – not/net, many/money, flock/rock/drop, river/glitter, weather/feather, flight/light, good/wood – whew! That must have taken blood, sweat and tears to write that, keep it all acrostic, make the structure clean and strong, make the repetitions poetic, and still say something meaningful, from the heart!]

If you would like to follow up about the author or illustrator, here are some links:

ROBERT MACFARLANE is interviewed by a Waterstone’s bookseller  here 

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Robert Macfarlane

JACKIE MORRIS posted a look at how The Lost Words came to be – the collaborative process with Robert Macfarlane – on her blog.

macfarlane5-jackiemorris

Jackie Morris

Over at Brainpickings, Maria Popova talks about the link between attentiveness and naming.

And if you’re interested in poetry for children, check out the Poetry Friday round-up this week, hosted by Michelle Kogan.

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17 responses to “Lost Words…?

  1. Sorry – the initial link to the interview of Robert Macfarlane was incorrect. I’ve corrected it now.

  2. Thank you so much, Julie, for letting us know about this marvelous book.

  3. Oh, Julie, this is such a good blog. My Amanda sent it to me. (Well, she’s not mine, she’s her own Amanda, but I used the possessive only to distinguish her from that other wonderful big-as-Texas woman of the same name.) Amanda Lewis is in NYC right now, tracking down the past. We talk at home about lost words. Actually, we talk in lost words. They are welcome in our home. Maybe we people who love language need to put out something like bird feeders to let the lost words know there is sustenance here and friendship. Word feeders.

  4. This controversy is new to me. The words, even conker, are familiar to me, lover of non-fiction, writing historical fiction, having grown up with people born in 1903 & 1925. What a shock to think heron, otter are unknown or rather unneeded to be known by today’s kids? Brava to the collaborators & the publisher. It especially is noteworthy that it is a BOOK (jr. oed that is excluding these words…. not a podcast or a video …. a trusted book resources dissing such vital words. It’s on my list, thanks to you.

  5. Thank you for sharing that lovely book and for the thoughtful conversation on the OED Junior’s word choices.

  6. Cathy Ballou Mealey

    Wow – my jaw dropped. I had no idea! But I will be getting Macfarlane’s book. Amazing information & helpful post.

  7. I have long wished elementary schools would spend more time taking students into the natural world and teaching plant identification, birds, etc. This makes me feel how very urgent it is!
    Masterful acrostic. Thanks for sharing this book and poem. I love Jackie Morris’ art.

  8. I was captivated by Landmarks, dismayed by the loss of words on the Junior OED (Acorns, surely, will become archaic only on the day that oak trees all die!) and I can’t wait to get my hands on this beautiful book.

  9. Oh my, it’s a sad thing when children do not know these words, those tiny fairy caps from acorns, the good luck I was told I would have when I spotted a heron. . . I’m glad to share that I am out a lot with my granddaughters who do know those things and see those cheeky magpies often here in Denver. Thanks for sharing the book, a must have! I am reminded too often of Richard Louv’s book “Last Child In The Woods.”

  10. Fascinating look at language and how it changes. It does make me sad that such wonderful words were cut from the dictionary–but now the words live on in a wonderful poetry collection. I do appreciate the difficult decisions the editors made, and especially that while individual dictionaries may drop some words to add others, there are even more dictionaries for children available with even more words when you put them together. Now I think I need to round up some children and go for a hike through the woods!

  11. What an amazing and thought-provoking post. Thank you for the information and the motivation to go out and be in the world

  12. The poem you chose is lovely. I’m shocked at the words that were removed. Kind of sad to think that children aren’t using words like dandelion, acorn, ..etc. I spent so much time outside as a child, and these words were part of my everyday experience.

  13. Nice to meet you at your “new” blog, Julie–somehow I’ve missed this location. I will order this book immediately and although it is not a tragedy to e*ual so many of the tragic news events that we’re wallowing in daily, it IS a tragedy to think that these words of immediate, concrete world experience are not thought crucial to a child’s understanding of their surroundings. Kudos to Macfarlane for doing these words justice in poetic form.

  14. Thanks for sharing this gorgeous book in words and art Julie. I can’t fathom how they deleted these words–they just need to make the dictionary larger or put it on a disc instead of printing it.

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