Rewilding the Language.

Robert Macfarlane has a wonderful Guardian piece on how he came to write his new book Landmarks:

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”. […]

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?” […]

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Crucially, he says “I am wary of the dangers of fetishising dialect and archaism – all that mollocking and sukebinding Stella Gibbons spoofed so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm“; this saves him from the folly of a Robert Bridges (see this LH post). He doesn’t make exaggerated claims for his collection; he just thinks it would be better if we retained more verbal ties with the landscape around us, and I can’t argue with that. And he ends with the tale of Abdal Hamid Fitzwilliam-Hall, who “decided to begin gathering place words from the Arabic dialects, before they were swept away forever. But his task soon began to grip him with the force of an obsession, and he moved into neighbouring Semitic and African-Eurasian languages, then to the Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Nordic and Slavic language families, and then backwards in time to the first Sumerian cuneiform records of c3100 BCE.” That, I fear, suggests full-blown crackpottery, or Casaubonism; Macfarlane is merely a man who loves words and wants to share them. I intend to remember and use ammil and smeuse myself. (Thanks, Michael!)


  1. Very endearing, thanks, LH! I love peat bogs (yes they exist even in our intermountain desert, only generally at 9,000+ ft elevation) and never heard so specific terms about them.

    With respect to Casaubonism, my eye picked the allusion to “cave paintings of our ancestors” in the closing section of this wonderful essay, and I thought I must chime in that the painters of the caves turn out to not be our ancestors (and in fact they even looked nothing like modern Europeans, having dark skin and blue eyes)

  2. “and I thought I must chime in that the painters of the caves turn out to not be our ancestors (and in fact they even looked nothing like modern Europeans, having dark skin and blue eyes)”

    We are all descended from people who looked not very much like us at all. Give it enough time and enough generations and admixture from incoming populations; descendants can look quite different from their ancestors:

  3. French has a specialised term for a peaty marsh, les fagnes, which I have encountered in the Ardennes region around Spa-Francorchamps on the French- Belgian/Walloon border (though at only about 300 metres or so)

  4. I have come across ‘smeuse’ in the form ‘muset’.

  5. -Sumerian cuneiform records of c3100 BC

    As I know, there were such records at that time (and even earlier), but they have developed into full scale writing only by 2800 BC.

    Before that, they could be described as advanced pictographs which certainly meant something to the people who wrote them, but not much to us.

  6. éit made me MacBain and then

    <éiteag>, white pebble, precious stone; from Eng. [hectic], lapis
    [hecticus], the white hectic stone, used as a remedy against
    dysentery and diarrh@oea (Martin, [West Isles], 134). See [eitig].

    <eitig>, consumption; from Sc. [etick], from Fr. [étique], [hectique], Eng.

    Back-formation (subtracting -ag which sounds like the diminutive suffix -ag, cognate of the Irish óg) _is_ poetic.

    Making the name for tight things cognate to ‘whistle’ (fead) is poetic, too. Dwelly hits for ‘feadan’:

    feadan -ain, -an, sm Fife, flute. 2 Chanter of the bagpipe. 3 Reed. 4 Spout. 5 The calibre of a gun. 6 Barrel. 7 Crevice through which the wind whistles. 8 Oaten-pipe. 9 Discharge of a still. 10** Canal. 11 Water-pipe. 12** Flageolet. 13(DMC) Opening in the wall of a barn to let in the wind for winnowing grain. 14(DMC) Opening in the wall of a byre. 15(DMC) Aqueduct under a road. Feadan na bàthaich, the byre-runnel; feadan taomaidh, a pump; ceòl an fheadain tlàth, the music of the soft reed.
    feadan-uisge ** sm Water-pipe, gutter or rone of a house. 2(AH) Small cascade or waterfall.
    feadan na h-àth (DMK) sm Narrow passage leading from the fire to the pit of a kiln. Caithness.
    feadan-uisge (DJM) sm A streamlet in a narrow channel.

    (** means Armstrong‘s dictionary

    rionnach maoim: (reannach spotted) burst (alarm, fear) spots?

    fèith is a vein.

    caoch is blind (‘partially’; ‘one-eyed’ (SBG) – not dall (-an is a diminutive deadjectival suffix)

    and teine biorach is spiny/spiky fire.

  7. Thanks very much, anya, that’s great explication!

  8. Is “smeuse” related to Tolkien’s favorite etymon, smug-?

  9. It’s from an earlier meuse “A gap in a fence or hedge through which hares, rabbits, etc., pass, esp. as a means of escape”; OED (Third Edition, December 2001):

    Etymology: < Middle French muce, musse, mouce hiding place, secret place (1190 in Old French as muce; only from 1561 in spec. sense 1a; French regional (central and western) musse hiding place, hole in a hedge) < mucier, mucer to hide, conceal oneself (second half of the 12th cent.; compare Anglo-Norman muscier, muscer, mucier, etc.; also Italian (regional) mucciare, muccire to flee) < an unidentified reflex of the Celtic base of Early Irish múch smoke, Welsh mwg smoke, which in turn is related to the Germanic base of smoke v. Compare mitch v., muset n.1 Compare slightly earlier maze n.2 and discussion at that entry.
    Recorded in Eng. Dial. Dict. s.v. in very widespread English regional use.

  10. Jeffry A. House says

    “French has a specialised term for a peaty marsh, les fagnes, which I have encountered in the Ardennes region around Spa-Francorchamps on the French- Belgian/Walloon border (though at only about 300 metres or so)”.

    Probably related to Spanish fango, mud, or mire. Interestingly, both Havana, Cuba and San Jose, Puerto Rico have slums known as “El Fango” or diminutive, el fanguito. Historically, the English translation has been given as “swampy” or “swamp town”.

  11. La Horde Listener says

    Smoose? Smay-oose? Smoiz? SmYOOzeh? Um, Luxury Yacht?
    That’s such a delightful word. I want to use it.

  12. OED (from 1912) says /smjuːs/ /smjuːz/, but I think I’d drop the y-glide and say “smoos” or “smooze” — I have to decide which sounds better.

  13. John McConnaughy says

    What a wonderful article, about a vocabulary that amounts to a very useful poetry. I’ve certainly had occasions to use, for example, “chaochan”, but never had the word for it.
    I can’t help but wonder about similar vocabularies in other languages. I recently read a translation of Aksakov’s Notes Of A Provincial Wildfowler, and wonder if his detailed descriptions of wildfowl habitats were guided by a similar vocabulary. When he speaks of ‘open marshes’ (pastureland flooded part of the year), ‘dry marshes’ (tussocky fenland which is drying out), and ‘wet marshes’, is he using a set of commonly understood terms in Russian, or did he make up the categories himself?

  14. No, Russian has a rich vocabulary of such terms, many of which I’ve learned by reading Aksakov. (I recently finished his Notes on Angling; LH post.) Of course, many of them have doubtless been forgotten by today’s largely urban Russian readers.

  15. I didn’t know the term rionnach maoim for “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”, but the phenomenon itself is one of the most beautiful sights in Connemara. You can get a sense of it at around 0:25 here: . (That’s a timelapse video, but in the right conditions the real-time experience is quite similar.)

  16. J. W. Brewer says

    There are lots of specialized subsets of modern AmEng users who have technical lexical terms either describing phenomena the rest of us are oblivious to altogether or describing subtle fine-grained differences among phenomena that the rest of us lump together and don’t pay attention to at that level of detail. Doctors can subdivide headaches into a dozen different genres. I expect that recording engineers and ham radio buffs can distinguish lexically among many different kinds of buzzing/crackling/staticky noises that all seem much of a muchness to outsiders. IT security experts who try to foil hackers no doubt have their own jargon for adversary-snaring techniques very loosely analogous to putting stones underwater in order to attract a certain sort of attention by sparkling in the moonlight. And those who still spend a more-than-average amount of time outdoors will have similar specialized jargon — no doubt fishing and canoeing enthusiasts who spend a lot of time around running water have ways of talking about subtle differences in current that the rest of us generally don’t need to talk about. Is this exotic-seeming peat-etc. vocabulary really any different than any of that sort of thing?

  17. i don’t know what you mean by “really.” If the words and phrases mentioned in the post don’t seem different to you from medical terms for headaches, then for you they’re not. For many of us, evidently, they are.

  18. J. W. Brewer says

    It seems remarkably unsurprising to me that people who spend a lot of time around peat bogs and whose livelihood may depend on understanding subtle peat-bog-related distinctions will have a specialized professional jargon about peat-bog-related phenomena. To say “ah, if only we deskbound moderns knew more about peat bogs we would be more in touch with our essential nature” seems no different that claiming that old-timey Hebridean crofters would derive some spiritual benefit if they knew the specialized jargon (and the mode of understanding the world it implies or entails) of our own trade. Perhaps we romanticize them because the rugged landscape on which they scraped out a very difficult and marginal subsistence living (before the Highland Clearances, emigration, etc.) strikes us as the sort of place we would like to go on vacation. (I’ve been there once on vacation myself; it’s quite lovely but I expect my Gaelic-speaking great-great-great-grandfather left because poverty sucked. And/or because he was in some sort of trouble with the authorities.)

    There is also the possibility that there are a bunch of synonyms or near-synonyms that some insufficiently-skeptical word-collector treats as more semantically distinct than they are. For example, AmEng has lots of different words of overlapping semantic scope for “thing like a river but smaller,” e.g. creek, brook, stream, run, branch, etc etc. Much of the variation is regional, but if some visiting anthropologist asked what the difference between a creek and a brook was, many helpful native informants would probably uncritically accept the premise of the question and try to articulate one that would eliminate the very substantial semantic overlap in the interests of a delusive precision, and the anthropologist would go back home and write up a paper on how in touch with nature the Americans were because of all the fine-grained distinctions they make .

  19. Hecked by the etymology of eiteag which is all over the map and lit and … hectic?!, then thinking of a slope where someone hecked their initials in quartzite pebbles, visible from hundreds of feet away, I’d like to introduce to heck as an English verb for decorating a natural canvas (a hill slope, a body) in a way that challenges or annoys the viewer or undermines hir self-complacency. Tagging a wall or rockface; bodymods; deer tracks on slopes, bouldering sheep, uncanny etymologies would all qualify as hecking. Something creative somebody did and I find myself resisting. ‘I hecked X’ is questionable usage but a plot I guess.

    (We’d drop -t from ‘hect’ eventually anyway.)

  20. Are the White Horses of Uffington and other places instances of heckage?

  21. La Horde Listener says

    “~It’s Christ-smeuse tiiiiime in the city!~” Thank you for looking it up for us, L.H. Excellent topic. Now I’ll be quiet. {;-D

  22. John, I had thought of them and wasn’t thinking of them (I guess it’s subjective/context-dependent), but I will be glad to see the word hecked to fit as a moving part.

  23. Hi: I came across McFarlane’s article in the Guardian and was happy to see people working to create ‘dictionaries of the wind.’ I’m a park ranger in the US and have long been in search of a word to represent the collective living, breathing landscape and ecology: trees, meadows, streams, granite, pikas & etc. To my shame, the National Park Service usually refers to it as “the resource” and manages it from the office of Resource Management. As a friend of mine commented: “…distasteful.” I just ordered Landscapes. Does anyone have a word that might work? I have a fantasy of something unpronounceable in Welsh… .

    Many thanks,


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