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