How words get culled from language
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
DO YOU HAVE ANY INTEREST in words?
If so, I highly recommend you head to iPlayer to listen to Robert Macfarlane on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, which was broadcast last Friday 30 July.
In case you don’t know, Robert Macfarlane is a writer and a teacher. Well, he calls himself a teacher. That’s a pretty humble description for a fellow at Cambridge University. Robert’s award-winning books focus on nature and words and the connections between the two.
So, part of the description on the front cover of his book Landmarks reads:
“a field guide to the literature of nature”.
Playing in puddles is known as 'plodging' in north east England.
Why, you may be thinking, does anyone need a field guide to the literature of nature? Surely, if you’ve been for a wander in the woods and you want to accurately describe the experience, a dictionary is a handy guide to the literature of nature.
Kind of. But, unfortunately, there is a problem with some dictionaries.
To understand that problem, let’s start by reminding ourselves how destructive we are with the natural world. Humans have overpopulated the planet, we pollute it, we extract and burn fossil fuels from it and we rip out forests as if we can simply replace them tomorrow morning. Because we know we've been a tad careless, we're beginning to make a few changes. But only after centuries of destruction.
Landmarks reminds us that humans are also obliterating the language of the environment. Here’s how…
Small apples left on the tree are known as 'griggles' in south west England.
When a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published a few years ago, sharp-eyed readers noticed it did not contain all the words of the previous edition. Omissions included: ‘acorn’, ‘bluebell’, ‘buttercup’, ‘conker’, ‘dandelion’, ‘heather’, ‘kingfisher’, ‘newt’ and ‘otter’.
Taking their place were words including: ‘attachment’, ‘blog’, ‘broadband’, ‘bullet-point’, ‘chatroom’, ‘cut-and-paste’ and ‘voice-mail’.
When the publisher’s head of children’s dictionaries was asked about the missing nature words, she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day children.
So, at least one of the ‘world’s most trusted dictionaries’ no longer helps kids understand what an otter is.
If you think that’s a shame, Landmarks helps redress the balance. Not by explaining what an acorn or a buttercup is. But by collecting and explaining a hoard of nature words that likely don’t appear in any version of the famous dictionaries. Words from different parts of the country that are seldom used because they don’t reflect our consensus experience.
So, in the same way you can pick out different natural features on a walk, you can dip into Landmarks and pluck out a description for, say: ‘pank’ (‘to knock or shake apples from a tree – Herefordshire’); ‘smeuse’ (‘a gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal – Sussex’); ‘clumst’ (‘benumbed with cold – northern England’).
Some nature words are absolutely delicious. ‘Apricity’ describes the sun’s warmth in winter; ‘clarts’ are mud in north east England and Scotland; ‘gleet’ is shining ice in Dumfriesshire; and ‘petrichor’ is the distinctive smell of rain in the air.
To 'skiddle' is to skim stones on water in Galloway.
The warm glow of words
Of course, you may never find a use for such words in any sentence you ever write or utter. Many of them are regional and very specific. But, like going for a walk in the places that prompted them, there’s a rewarding warm glow on offer just from knowing they’re there.
It’s the same sort of warm glow that’s on offer from listening to the Desert Island Discs episode I’ve somehow meandered away from. In it, Robert Macfarlane reminds us that a quarter of the mammals in the UK are on the endangered list. And a flock of birds are also plummeting, including the starling, the curlew and the turtle dove.
Time to re-plant words?
As mentioned, we are starting to put some measures in place to change our destructive ways with the environment. Maybe this is a good time for lexicographers to re-plant some of the words they rooted out of their dictionaries.
If you have any interest in the natural world you must have an interest in the language that describes it. In which case an eloquent treat awaits you on iPlayer. Tune in. Not just to the show, but to the world around you.
Thanks for reading.
Get in touch if you want any help with your wordy stuff.