The Lost Words.

Daegan Miller interviews Robert Macfarlane (see this LH post) about his new book, a collaboration; here’s the lead-in:

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, one of the standard reference works found in primary schools throughout the UK, began removing words from its pages that were no longer being used or read enough by children to merit inclusion—words like “acorn,” “bluebell,” “heron,” and “kingfisher.” It replaced these names for the natural world with entries for the likes of “broadband” and “cut-and-paste,” modern words for our technological age. There was an outcry: what does it mean when nature is deemed irrelevant to children’s language? Among the dismayed was the artist and author Jackie Morris, who began imagining a book made up of the dictionary’s losses, a book beautifully illustrated and written, a book that would summon back the words for the natural world.

Morris approached Robert Macfarlane, one of the most beloved nature writers working in the English language, with her idea—would he be interested in writing the text? He was, and thus was born The Lost Words. It is a stunning book, and large. At 11 x 15 inches, Morris’s illustrations have enough room to become an ecosystem of their own. And Macfarlane’s poems—“spells,” Macfarlane and Morris call them—are invitations to imagine, reflect, and laugh as one’s tongue trips over intricate syllables. Daegan Miller reviewed The Lost Words for Public Books in March 2018; this summer he conducted a follow-up interview with the book’s creators to talk about their collaboration.

A nice idea for a book, and I like Macfarlane’s final comment:

Can I tell you a story about the spell “Conker”? Or what you in North America call a “buckeye,” I think. The “Conker” spell ends:

… conker cannot be made,
however you ask it, whatever wood or tool you use,
regardless of decree. Only one thing can conjure
conker—and that thing is tree.

Well, a week ago I was contacted by somebody whose father I went on a walk with 11 years ago, a man who has since passed away. This father had been a woodworker, and he was a wonderful, gentle, humble man. One of the things he had made as a woodworker, late in his life, was an imitation of a conker. He made it out of horse chestnut wood. I have it here in front of me as we talk. It’s a very beautiful thing. It’s lathed. It’s sanded. It’s stained. It gleams and it glows and it has the feel of treasure to it. It was sent to me by his widow, the mother of the person who contacted me. She said: “We read your “Conker” spell and although this isn’t a true conker, it was made out of love for the thing itself. We want you to have it.” So I have this conjured conker in my hand. It was conjured by imagination and by dream and by love and by craft. Those are some of the things that we do best, it seems to me, as a species.

Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. Savalonôs says:

    It reminds me a bit of the diffident outrage over elementary schools not teaching cursive. Personally, I’m hesitant to think of the examples listed as a kind. It does seem strange to me that kids might finish school not knowing what an acorn is. This word features frequently in figures of speech. Heron and kingfisher strike me as a reasonably having lower priority (and, anyway, learning about herons in school will do you no good trying to understand what rappers or The Wire characters mean by it). As for bluebell, I don’t know what that is, so I’ll refrain from commenting on its importance to a well-rounded education.

    P.S. one of my favorite songs of the last few years is “Zorbing” by the UK band Stornoway. The opening lines are

    Conkers shining on the ground,
    The air is cooler,
    And I feel like I just started uni.

    I still have only a vague idea of what to picture when he says says “conkers”. Saying “buckeyes” instead would regrettably make no difference at all.

  2. It does seem strange to me that kids might finish school not knowing what an acorn is.

    Oh, of course the pretext is ridiculous, I just thought it led to an interesting-sounding book. I’m sick unto death of the thumbsucking op-eds that repeat hackneyed thoughts like “what does it mean when nature is deemed irrelevant to children’s language?” (oh the humanity!!), but at least these folks produced something creative.

  3. I still have only a vague idea of what to picture when he says says “conkers”. Saying “buckeyes” instead would regrettably make no difference at all.

    The inedible nut of a horse-chestnut tree. Image here. Usually 2-3cm in diameter. In Britain traditionally used for a children’s game in which you thread a conker on a string and swing it at your opponent’s in an attempt to break it. Meanwhile, Americans unfamiliar with the botanical buckeye may know it as a homemade peanut-butter and chocolate confectionary resembling the nut (or as a nickname for Ohioans).

    As for bluebell, I don’t know what that is, so I’ll refrain from commenting on its importance to a well-rounded education.

    A woodland flower.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    When I was working in a First Nations community in Northern British Columbia, I learned a word in the indigenous language which was translated as acorn, but there were no oaks of any kind as the location was much too far North for them to grow there. In fact what the locals called acorns were the cones of fir, spruce, pine etc. Perhaps they had learned the word in school as something growing on trees, that squirrels ate, but they had never seen one.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    A woodland flower.

    Also found growing wild in gardens and on various agricultural meadows – probably not this exact species, though.

  6. English is my second language, but this is the first time I have encountered the notion that an acorn is the nut of a horse-chestnut tree, and I literally grew up around them. The street I grew up on is lined with them. My grandmother’s balcony has one growing into it. I thought an acorn is the fruit of an oak. BTW, there ARE edible horse-chestnuts, the grow in the Belasitsa mountain in south-west Bulgaria.

  7. I thought an acorn is the fruit of an oak

    It is; the other is a very local use that would not be understood by most English-speakers.

  8. broadband

    I think this word is getting obsolete already.

    Who is using dialup Internet these days anyway?

  9. English is my second language, but this is the first time I have encountered the notion that an acorn is the nut of a horse-chestnut tree, and I literally grew up around them.

    As far as I can see, you are the first person in this thread to suggest such an idea. As I said above, the nut of a horse-chestnut tree is a conker (or buckeye).

  10. Tim: See marie-lucie’s comment above (October 15, 2018 at 2:35 pm):

    When I was working in a First Nations community in Northern British Columbia, I learned a word in the indigenous language which was translated as acorn, but there were no oaks of any kind as the location was much too far North for them to grow there. In fact what the locals called acorns were the cones of fir, spruce, pine etc. Perhaps they had learned the word in school as something growing on trees, that squirrels ate, but they had never seen one.

  11. SFReader: I don’t think I know what was meant by it in the first place. I think it was in a very US-specific context. ASDL maybe? I would hardly call that broadband. I would not call anything less than ten megabytes adequate.

  12. Tim May: we used to play with horse-chestnut nuts as children a lot, but I don’t think we called it anything.

  13. Hat: I read marie-lucie’s comment, but she’s talking about “cones of fir, spruce, pine etc.” not horse-chestnuts.

  14. Many Americans know buckeye as a nickname for Ohio (more precisely for Ohioans).

    Kids learn all sorts of nature words even if they have little chance to encounter the things they denote. Even city kids learn the names of common farm animals and of more popular members of animal kingdom. The latter group includes lions, tigers, rhinos, giraffes, elephants and such, which would be actually hard to find in your regular American or British town unless you go to the zoo (it would be a fun map to make where the places are colored depending on the distance to the closest elephant). To say nothing about dinosaurs, which seem to be one of the most popular animals of little children.

  15. Hat: I read marie-lucie’s comment, but she’s talking about “cones of fir, spruce, pine etc.” not horse-chestnuts.

    So she is; sorry. I don’t know where V got the idea, then.

  16. I understood marie-lucies’ point, sorry, I was reminiscing, I am sorry I was not clear. I was just enjoying the polysemanticy.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    During the period I referred to above, working on an indigenous language program for schools, my coworkers and I were always looking for suitable visual materials. In catalogues of supplies for teachers you can find any number of pictures, cutouts, puppets, etc representing dogs, cats, sheep, cows, and other animals known to people of European origin, as well as lions, tigers, elephants and so on (and of course dinosaurs!). But it was very hard to find a picture of a bear, a wolf, a deer, an elk, a porcupine, an eagle, a raven, a salmon, or other creatures that the children saw on a regular basis.

  18. January First-of-May says:

    I’ve seen quite a lot of bears, wolves, deer, eagles and ravens in Bulgaria?

    I agree – bears, wolves, deer, and elk (especially the first two) don’t feel that rare as pictures or plushies. (Though it might be different in Canada.)

    Not sure about eagles and ravens – there’s also quite enough of them in real-life Europe, but I don’t recall many pictures of them (never mind plushies).
    The same would be true for salmon, except more so, because most Europeans just wouldn’t care for distinguishing them from generic “fish”. (Actually, what do salmon look like? They’re the ones with the weird lips, right?)

    Porcupines, yes, that might be tricky. (Europeans are more familiar with hedgehogs.)

  19. January First-of-May: I’ve seen hedgehogs wandering around in my neighborhood. And I live pretty much near the center of Sofia.

  20. Savalonôs says:

    Thanks, Tim May. I would call those horse-chestnuts. This is basically what I had been picturing, so I guess I had figured it out at some point. Although I had it in mind with the fleshy outer layer, which perhaps was not intended (not very shiny).

  21. Savalonôs: before they fall down from the tree, they are very prickly, afterwards, they shed their outer layer and it’s really fun to play with them: very smooth, and nice to kick around 🙂 And the leaves: before they fall down, you can do a trick wherein they make a nice popping noise.

  22. The inedible nut of a horse-chestnut tree.

    It depends:

    Tochimochi 橡餅 (とちもち)
    ricecakes with horse chestnuts
    tochimen 橡麺(とちめん)、tochidango 橡団子(とちだんご)
    rice gruel with horse chestnuts, tochi gayu 橡粥(とちがゆ)
    It takes a lot of effort to get the bitterness out of the chestnuts. But the poor farmers of old did not have much choice but use any kind of nuts from the autumn forrest as food to survive the harsh winter.
    ….. Horse Chestnut (tochi) Aesculus hippocastanum

    https://washokufood.blogspot.com/2008/08/autumn-food.html

  23. juha: I know there are edible horse-chestnuts in other parts the world also. And I know it was historically famine food. It’s a delicacy in south-west Bulgaria, especially in the Belasitsa region. I’ll look into your references to the Japanese tradition.

  24. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    In my youth in British England, home of British English, small children would play conkers thus:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLGuZZraIqg

    In Dutch, the word for “acorn” is “eikel”, which is a treasured swear (with a literal referent the same as that of BrE “knob”).

  25. Re broadband – the definition of which access speeds qualify as broadband is revised upwards every couple of years and is different in each telecommunications market. The times when everything better than dial-up qualified are long gone.

  26. In Dutch, the word for “acorn” is “eikel”, which is a treasured swear (with a literal referent the same as that of BrE “knob”).

    Glans.

  27. knob

    As in Knob Creek?

  28. BTW, there ARE edible horse-chestnuts, the grow in the Belasitsa mountain in south-west Bulgaria

    BrE at least distinguishes between the sweet chestnut (edible, roasted, or used in things like marrons glaces) and the horse chestnut (spiky shell, not readily edible).

    In catalogues of supplies for teachers you can find any number of pictures, cutouts, puppets, etc representing dogs, cats, sheep, cows, and other animals known to people of European origin, as well as lions, tigers, elephants and so on (and of course dinosaurs!). But it was very hard to find a picture of a bear, a wolf, a deer, an elk, a porcupine, an eagle, a raven, a salmon, or other creatures that the children saw on a regular basis.

    I am really not sure there are many children, indigenous or otherwise, who see bears, wolves and eagles on a regular basis, but are unfamiliar with and confused by pictures of dogs.

  29. The point was (obviously) not that children were “unfamiliar with and confused by pictures of dogs” but that it would be nice if they could have representations of other animals they were familiar with. If people of color complain that they don’t see themselves in media, it’s not because they’re unfamiliar with and confused by pictures of white people (to take an analogy that springs to mind).

  30. I think LH is exactly right. The purpose of education (even of very young children) is acculturation. And Native American children should learn and hear stories about animals that are a part of their heritage, while Anglo city kids should learn about pigs and cows.

  31. The point was (obviously) not that children were “unfamiliar with and confused by pictures of dogs” but that it would be nice if they could have representations of other animals they were familiar with

    Still really unsure that there are a significant number of children anywhere who are familiar with bears and eagles because they see them on a regular basis, but are unfamiliar with dogs because they don’t see them on a regular basis.

  32. I mean, there were dogs in North America well before there were European-descended humans.

  33. The bluebell is a lovely wild spring flower that grows in bluebell woods. This one I’ve linked is in Kew Gardens, in southwest London, by the river, and I was there by chance for the first time a couple of springs ago. It’s worth a trip to London just to see it. Apparently a couple of kangaroos used to live there, it says in the text. A bit like Beethoven and his arrangements of British folksongs Haydn wrote a piano-trio version of The Bluebells of Scotland, but what the Scots call bluebells are something quite different, it’s what we would call harebells.

    I loved playing conkers as a child, so much so that I’ve planted a tree in Norway outside my garden. Incidentally, the horsechestnut or Aesculus hippocastanum, ISN’T A CHESTNUT (Castanea) AT ALL. Different families. The horsechestnut was brought to England from Turkey in the 16C. I believe it originated somewhere around Bulgaria so I can easily believe they have an edible variety. The thing about conkers is they come out of their shell all smooth, chestnut-coloured & shiny but within days they’ve turned dull brown and wrinkled. So it makes sense to me that this man would make a wooden, longlasting facsimile.

    I always get acorn, Germ. Ahorn (maple) and Norw. ekkorn (squirrel) mixed up.

    By the way, nature isn’t some old-farty subject that’s too boring for rappers like us. It only becomes interesting, however, if you spend your time with it, or in it, and that’s not always easy. Wasn’t “wilding” what American city teenagers used to spend their summer evenings doing a couple of decades ago? Nowadays wilding (or rewilding) is a fascinating new experiment to turn unneeded, uneconomic agricultural land (of which there is apparently huge quantities) to better use (read: feral horse & cattle breeds, ur trees, scrub, wildflowers, bird types & insects). I’ve just been reading these two very good books on the subject:
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1509805095/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00AHO28MW/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_tmb

    ps for squiffy-marie and other Dutchpersons: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/27/dutch-rewilding-experiment-backfires-as-thousands-of-animals-starve

  34. Still really unsure that there are a significant number of children anywhere who are familiar with bears and eagles because they see them on a regular basis, but are unfamiliar with dogs because they don’t see them on a regular basis.

    Nobody is saying there are children unfamiliar with dogs! You’re missing the point entirely; read m-l’s and my comments again.

  35. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    I might be willing to claim there are children unfamiliar with dogs, for a modest fee?

  36. Speaking of “modern words for the technological age”, today conker still lives on as the name of a video game squirrel. Perhaps with the botanical sense as the etymology, now that I think of it, though I’ve never thought of horse chestnut seeds as A Squirrel Food. (For me the stereotypical members of this category are acorns and spruce cones.)

  37. I assumed Conker the squirrel was named both after the horse chestnuts and the fact that he whacks enemies with a frying pan. The first Conker game is adult themed, but it was originally going to be a family title, until it was retooled after a demo version was deemed too bland. So I’m not sure at what stage the name “Conker” was chosen.

  38. Squirrels (red ones, anyway) do like spruce & pine cones but they also love hazelnuts and tulip bulbs. They bury the nuts to eat later and then forget where they’d left them. Unfortunately they don’t do this with the tulip bulbs.

  39. “BrE at least distinguishes between the sweet chestnut (edible, roasted, or used in things like marrons glaces) and the horse chestnut (spiky shell, not readily edible).”

    The point was that there is a semi-domesticated kind of horse-chestnut which is readily edible. As far as I knew, it only grows in Belasitsa mountain, but apparently also in Japan.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    spiky shell

    The shells of more-readily-edible chestnuts are covered in spikes, too, but smaller and much thinner ones.

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