Nonfiction Friday-The Lost Words: A Spell Book, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, 2018


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.


LL2In 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’?”

My Thoughts

I managed to find about 30 of the removed words.

acoLL8rn, 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


Raven? They removed raven.

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?



The too-cute newt

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.
Device: Harcover
Year: 2018
Pages: N/A

The Case of the Silent ‘W’

viking sword

Specifically the ‘w’ in sword. I like to pronounce it when I am talking to myself or reading aloud an old poem. Speaking the ‘w’ sounds more noble and knightly and easier to see in my mind’s eye two brave knights fighting for the honor of their queen wielding their s’w’ords, rather than their ‘sords.’knight1

Why and how did we make this change, losing the ‘w’ in sword, if we still say swindle and swan, sweater, swoop and swivel? Was it a pronunciation issue or a linguistic change? Because if we can move our mouths to form toward and forward, we can easily say s’w’ord.

Our philological history is evident in the many words and letter combinations retained in modern English we no longer pronounce; remains from our Anglo Saxon and Germanic linguistic forebears. Light, enough, brought come to mind, though there are many others; hard to grasp for English speakers let alone explaining to those learning the language.

Imagine hearing Benjamin Franklin who, according to H. L. Mencken in his remarkable book, The American Language, pronounced the ‘l’ in the words would and should?!!

Mencken, in fact, mentions the issue of the silent ‘w’ in sword, explaining that American colonists pronounced it s’w’ord long after the English abandoned it. That is just over a couple of hundred years ago and in linguistic history, a blink of an eye. I think this bolsters my cause as ammunition enough to reclaim the lost letter. If history is on my side and surely if we can say swore, we can say s’w’ord. En garde!



Putnam’s Minute-a-Day English for Busy People, Edwin Hamlin Carr (1921)

Or “Let me give a Resume of the Subject” [i]puts12

My public library is one of my favorite places to buy used books. In a large area of the lobby, there are rows and rows of books spanning all categories. My favorite is the one they call ‘vintage.’ Mostly acquired from estate sales these are books published around the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s, which is MY time. Not that I lived then, a sorry turn of fate, but it is a time that has always felt familiar. I regularly find something that excites me.

puts6My latest find is called, Putnam’s Minute-a Day English for Busy People, published in 1921 . Like many popular grammar and English usage books of the day, it is a call, a method, a philosophy to get Americans on the same grammar/word-usage page. Because “someones” have decided that certain language constructions ain’t correct any longer or that we all must get clear on the same pronunciation of words. The word baptize, for example, was sometimes pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, bap tize’, instead of the more modern bap’ tize. (Although a little later in time, in the 1947 film, Life with Father, William Powell as Clarence Day, uses the former pronunciation throughout as he tries to make up his mind on whether or not to get bap tized’).

An example from Putnam’s:

Articulate the a???
Articulate the a???

Edwin Hamlin Carr wrote Putnam’s, not as a serious, laborious tome, but for ‘supper-table fun; language games for school and home….” [ii] Through the “laws of association” where only the correct forms are presented, he uses poems, ditties, rhymes and brief stories from newspapers and magazines to illustrate the issue at hand. Think Grammar Girl, 1921! Here’s an example (click on all the photos for an enlarged view):

'Halloo' is out and 'Hello' is in
‘Halloo’ is out and ‘Hello’ is in
'ear-a'? Really?
‘ear-a’? Really? And not ‘air-a’?

For me, Putnam’s is at once an early 20th century American English grammar concerned with correct syntax and pronunciation for English speakers and perhaps emigrants as well as a historical document of early 20th century American cultural self-expression.

Carr wants you to know umbrella is 3 syllables, not 4
“Supper-table fun” for sure, after a few drinks!


Carr believed that following his method of association would give the interested person “an accurate and effective form of English expression…if he will give to the task at least one minute a day.” [iii] And due to the fact that my copy had written notes throughout, in that old-fashioned cursive reminiscent of my grandparents, makes me believe that Carr’s purpose in writing the book was taken seriously, at least by the previous owner of my book.

To give a little context, William Strunk, self-published his ‘little book’ in the late teens and wrote it specifically for his college students, whereas Putnam’s was written for the home and family. Project Guttenberg has this original text if you would like to read Strunk before White got involved and it became Strunk and White’s Elements of Style!

I have to admit that as much as I have enjoyed reading this from a historical perspective, as a sort of primer on the issues and questions plaguing American language critics of the time, it is also an enjoyably useful book for those of us who could use a little nudge in the right grammatical direction!

From chapters on grammar and pronunciation to spelling, syllabication and “suggestions for party games,” I hope you find these examples fun and enlightening. And remember,

“A bit of correcting every day,
Drives the wrong syllabication away.” [iv]


And how did I do with this ‘resume’ of the book? Was it a decent summary? And did you pronounce it ray zu may’ ? Maybe something for YOUR next supper table!


[i] p. 17.
[ii] p. iii.
[iii] p. iii.
[iv] p. 261.