Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.
In the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) over 40 words from the natural world were removed from the previous edition. New words added were those of technology. In response to this decision by the publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP), the writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words: A Spell Book to conjure the words back into existence. It is a large picture book, with verse/rhyme/poetry that encourages the speaking out of the words and getting lost in the pictures.
I am ivy, a real high-flyer.
Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire.
You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.
The editors at OUP justified their decision by saying these removals and additions reflect the world children live in now. But this choice begs the question, what are dictionaries for? If only to describe where children live, how do children see a world outside the one they inhabit?
The mental and physical (I would add creative and spiritual) benefits children receive from nature have been well-documented and the lack of this exposure even has a name: nature-deficit disorder. Adding words that have to do with technology, while removing the words that speak to a child’s natural environment was worrisome enough that it caused 28 well-known authors, nature experts and education specialists to sign a letter to OUP stating their concerns. The signatories included, Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland, Helen Macdonald, Andrew Motion and Ruth Padel. The letter, in part:
“We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today…The research evidence showing the links between natural play and wellbeing; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.”
“The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.”
Said Andrew Motion, former poet laureate [UK]: “by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.
Little astronaut, where have you gone, and how is your
song still torrenting on?
Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher up, up there
in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?
Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again
and my heart grows flatter – so I’m coming to find
you by following your song,
Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and
exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut,
you sing your heart out at all dark matter.
In its defense, the head of the children’s dictionaries said, “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”
Macfarlane countered, “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name. Do we want an alphabet for children that begins ‘A is for Acorn, B is for Buttercup, C is for Conker’; or one that begins ‘A is for Attachment, B is for Block-Graph, C is for Chatroom’?”
I managed to find about 30 of the removed words.
acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, bramble, buttercup, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, herring, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mistletoe, mussel, nectar, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pasture, raven, starling, weasel, willow, wren
I am struck at the literary and cultural symbols here. Willows? The Wind in the Willows. And raven; magical, terrifying and so much a part of horror and mystery books. Can you read Poe without knowing about such creatures? Then there are the trees of Britain beech, ash, hazel that feature in so much literature and poetry. And isn’t it a rite of passage when you know that a cygnet is a young swan? The significance goes on and what to make of it…?
As children become further estranged from the natural world what will that do for metaphor and simile? If you spend your days indoors and read, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and your idea of a summer’s day is talking on your Iphone or playing computer games, how do you understand Shakespeare’s meaning or other literature where the natural world is not personally experienced? Can you appreciate Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending if you have never seen or read of the heights to which larks can fly? Then there is newt. Oh, the spells that include “eye of newt!”
How will the nature-deficit disordered child read literature and understand their culture without being able to find definitions of words, or even know the words exist? Or am I going overboard?
“Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!”
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,
“With your frilly back and your shiny suit
and your spotted skin so unhirsute!”
‘Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the
unastute coot. ‘With all this careless
talk of cute you bring me into
disrepute, for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit it’s true,’—he paused—‘minute.’
But that does come back to the reason we have dictionaries. Omitted words omit experiences, concepts, ways of seeing and understanding. Does language change, because our experience of the world changes? Or does our experience of the world change when we have no language for it? For gatekeepers such as editors of our great dictionaries, do they shape our world and those of our children by what words they keep in and those they leave out? Or are they just responding to the “signs of the time,” the priorities and lived experiences of our everyday lives and cut or add accordingly?
You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words—and it holds not poems but spells 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 mind’s eye.
Title: The Lost Words: A Spell Book
Author: Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris
Publisher: House of Anasi Press Inc.