If you delete a word, what happens?

A friend of mine, a fellow lover of birds, books, and words, suggested a couple of new blogs and a book, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. The credentials of both are exemplary. Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He has written other books including The Lost Spells, Underland, Landmarks, The Old Ways, and The Wild Places. Besides being a collector of words, Macfarlane is the father of three young children and is an avid mountain climber. Jackie Morris lives in a cottage near to the woods in Pembrokshire, Wales. She studied at the Hereford College of Arts and at the Bath academy. Morris is the author of more than forty children’s books including some British classics that you might know, The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Tell Me a Dragon and The Wild Swans. Both have won awards for their writing with Morris receiving honours for both illustration and writing. The illustrations that she has done both for her blog and for The Lost Words makes me wonder why book illustration – analog versus digital – isn’t taught in schools of art?

The Lost Words is a large format book, roughly 30 cm wide x 45 cm high. It is also a book about a ‘big’ or important topic. Written in 2017, the book chronicles some of the lost words. You might be sitting there wondering how society could lose a word. You might even be bewildered by the title of the book? I mean, what does it mean? and why should anyone care if a word is lost?

Do you own a dictionary? Maybe you have several in your bookcase. Or maybe you use the dictionary belonging to your word processing programme to vary the language that you use when you are writing. Do you ever wonder how words get into a dictionary? Have you ever heard about the new words for a specific year?

If you were to Google the Oxford English Dictionary’s new words entries (words that appear for the very first time) for January 2020, you would find the following as part of a number of words under the letter ‘A’: assault rifle, assault weapon, awedde, awe-inspiring, awel, awesomesauce, awfulize, and awfy. You might actually wonder why some of those words were not in the dictionary earlier. Well, it depends, apparently, on how many people use the words in print material. That includes books, magazines, music, songs, and DIY manuals. If new words are added because they are used so often in contemporary writing, what happens to words that are not used so often? And what do the added words say about us as a society? And what comment on contemporary society do the deleted words make?

The Lost Words is about words that have vanished from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. In other words, if your child picks up this dictionary from the shelf or accesses it on line, there are specific words that will not be there. You may be wondering why I am working myself up into such a lather. Well, it is because the words that have disappeared are about nature. The authors tell us that “the words disappeared so quietly that no one hardly noticed.” The parallel that I immediately drew in my mind was that not only is the word ‘wren’ disappearing from the language of and for children but the wrens themselves are also becoming endangered, becoming capable of being invisible. With birds dropping dead, falling from the skies all across the parts of the United States in 2020, will real wrens become like the word ‘wren’? Let us hope not. If anything was learned during the SARS-Covid 19 pandemic, it was that we need to protect non-humans and allow nature to recover from all the harm that humans have done.

The book is intended as an antidote, an aid, or as the authors specifically state, “a spell to conjure up” these words again so that children will know what they are. I might add that it is also so adults will know the words and be able to relate their importance to children. The first word is ‘acorn’. If you close your eyes, what do you think about when you hear the word, ‘acorn’? Have you ever seen one? Have you seen a squirrel gather acorns? Even though it has been decades since I was there, I still remember the scent of the oak trees on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in the fall after a rain. Another word was ‘heather’ and I simply blinked fast. Heather? really? are they joking? During my time in England, I spent some time hiking over the moors laden with heather. How could the word disappear? Do children really not go for walks through these beautiful purple headed flowers today? Many words just left me gasping to try and figure out who it was that precisely deleted these words? Did any human actually look at the list? Conkers. My son gathered up an entire pail of conkers. The lads and lasses would drill holds in them in order to play a game thrashing them one at another to see who won. I have in my desk drawer conkers from England and from Denmark. Rub them. They bring you luck and protect you. ‘Fern’ not a woman’s name but a plant sometimes grown inside but when outside often favours cool, moist, dark places. Each and every word from acorn, dandelion, heron, kingfisher, magpie, raven, starling, willow and all the other words in between, are about our relationship with nature. Are humans becoming more separated from nature at a time when both the health of ourselves and our planet need to find a balance in order to survive?

The answer to that question might lie in some of the words that took the place of those lost, from acorn to willow. The new entires were blog, broadband, cute-and-paste, bullet point, and voice-mail. Look closely. Each of those is related to the digital world – to the inside, not the outside. Sadly, they speak to the reality of people who pave their gardens with stone and brick so they do not have to do ‘yard’ work, to the disappearance of family time and outings for everyone sitting at their own digital device be it a phone, a tablet, or a laptop. Remember that the book was written in 2017. It is now the beginning of 2021 after a year that has forced people to work from home, to take their classes on line, the year of the pandemic when we missed the simple act of touching.

Perhaps, like the authors, we can wage a battle to recover the vanquished words. In 2020 more people watched bird cams than at any other time in the history of recording the daily lives of birds raising their young. Many became empathetic with the birds, from the small fruit eaters of Panama to the largest sea birds of Australia, the White Bellied Sea Eagle. People donated to wildlife charities and rehab centres. Maybe by taking children for walks and teaching them to be kind to non-humans, to be respectful, we can begin to heal as a society after such a dire year. And in doing so, perhaps we can also raise the awareness of the editors of The Oxford Junior Dictionary of nature’s importance to our own survival.