A character in a story often doesn’t realize what treasure he possesses until he has lost it. The same can be true of a society; but thankfully our treasure has been recovered in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
A number of newly-pertinent words were added to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children; words like blog and voicemail. But a few people noticed that words were also left out, making way for the jargon of the technical age. These discards were words of the natural world, suddenly deemed so unfamiliar and irrelevant to the lives of children that they no longer warranted a place in a common school dictionary. Mourning their loss, Robert Macfarlane set out with illustrator Jackie Morris to bring these words back.
But surely, you protest, language changes. Antiquated terminology should be dropped in favor of current usage. What were these old words, so unceremoniously banished from the childhood lexicon?
Well, I’ll tell you.
Acorn. Dandelion. Fern. Ivy. Otter. Raven. Weasel. Willow.
There are twenty in all.
You see how grave this is from many points of view. These are simple words, naming common outdoor discoveries; they should be as familiar to any youngster as the milk she pours on her cereal. How can she not know the joy of blowing away her wishes with the dandelion seeds? How can that squished bouquet of cheerful yellow flowers not have a name? And how much fun is missed if she cannot chuckle over Piglet’s “haycorns”? Aesop’s Fables and The Wind In The Willows lose vital members of their cast, and Poe’s majestic poem has no meaning for her. Such a child has been denied both experience of the natural world and references to it; how then can she love it?
But all is not yet lost. Macfarlane and Morris return these words to us in grand style. Written a decade after the telling omissions, their gorgeous book devotes three spectacular full-page spreads to the reintroduction of each word. The first two pages allocated to every lost word depict its letters, scattered like puzzle pieces with other letters among various flora and fauna. The second pair of pages presents the word, bringing it to life by describing the organism itself. An acrostic poem exuberantly depicts the plant or animal named, and opposite this is a portrait of it in detail enough to please any naturalist. On the final spread we then find a splendid illustration of the subject – now no longer lost, but lovably familiar – in its own habitat. We recognize it, and recall with satisfaction that indeed we have loved it.
The Lost Words is a lush book, and it doesn’t even need to argue that these words – these birds and beasts and growing things – are important. Rather, it shows us. It captures the gleam in a kingfisher’s eye, the temper of the irascible magpie, the twitter of a flock of starlings. It preserves the blazing beauty of the heather, and the possibilities of a lowly conker. It demonstrates the value of these lost words by reminding us that they are more than words: they are living things that have a rightful place in our language and our world.
This striking volume is large, like a coffee-table book; perfect for studying in detail. It cannot fail to ignite a fresh appreciation for our fellow creatures, and a desire to encounter them in both field and literature. The poetry is delicious and the paintings truly impressive. Readers of any age can savor it, but above all it should be shared with our children; that these words – and the wild things they represent – need not be lost from our collective memory.
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker