words and ecology, ecology and words

I love words (to the extent that I've been known to peruse dictionaries for pleasure). The Story of English was one of my favourite TV programs, back (long way back) in the day. So of course when I saw positive reviews for Robert Macfarlane's book, Landmarks, of course I had to get hold of a copy. For, as the author says, 

This is a book about the power of language,… It is a field guide to literature I love, and it is a word hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comparison of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.

I could tell I was going to enjoy the book as soon as I read that first paragraph. This isn't going to be a book review, because I haven't finished it yet. But I do want to share my thoughts on something else that Macfarlane says, very early on (in explaining his reasons for writing it). 

For he dicovered that a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (my kids had to have their own copies for school) had removed a number of words from its lexicon:

A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it lno longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion*, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.

In their place, the editors had added terms bearing on modern technology, including "attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail".

Now, I'm not someone who resists changes to the language. I know words change their meaning over time (which is why etymology is so much fun), and I know that words fall out of favour and into disuse, eventually to be lost. But that's different from an editorial board making a conscious decision on what words are more, or less, important for children to know and understand. 

The OUP editors were happy to explain the changes to Macfarlane: earlier editions had a reasonably large contingent of 'nature' words because a larger proportion of the population lived in semi-rural areas and would see plants, animals and the seasons on a regular basis.

"Nowadays the environment has changed." There is a realisim to her response – but also an alarming acceptance of the idea that children might no longer see the seasons, or that the rural environment might be so unproblematically disposable.

Now, words have a certain power. Of course you can convey a powerful message in relatively few short words! But a complex vocabulary allows precision in description, and (Macfarlane thinks, and I agree) also allows a sense of connection with the world. Not only is it sad to think that children may see less of the natural world these days, but it's a concern if with the loss of vocabulary comes a reduction in the ability to engage with any precision in describing and understanding the natural world.

There is, after all, a big difference between knowing that something's a tree, and knowing that it's a particular type of tree with its own particular niche. If we lose the feeling of the specific that's associated with the ability to name plants or animals with exactitude, do we also lose some amount of care for their individual survival, and for their wider environment? Macfarlane certainly thinks so, & says it far more eloquently than I can.

He quotes a colleague's observation that 

as people's 'working relationship with teh moorland [of Lewis] has changed, [so] the keen sense of conservation that went with it has atrophied, as has the language which accompanied that sense.


there are fewer people able to name [the features of the natural world], and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen… As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted … Or as Tim Dee neatyly puts it, 'Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.'

And so the loss of these words diminishes us all.


* Dandelion's gone? Really? Dandelions pop up even in concrete jungles. If  there was one flower I might expect city kids to see, it would be that.

R.Macfarlane (2015) Landmarks. pub. Hamilton Hamilton

2 thoughts on “words and ecology, ecology and words”

  • If I may recommend an older book: “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson. A very humorous and irreverent look at the development of the English language.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Stuart. I’ve read & loved several of Bryson’s books, but not this one. Another for my reading list!

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