In 2007, the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary introduced new words such as âbroadbandâ while others, describing the natural world, disappeared. The dictionaryâs guidelines require that it reflect âthe current frequency of words in daily language of childrenâ. However, the philosopher AJ Ayer introduced a generation to the notion that unless we have a word for something, we are unable to conceive of it, and that there is a direct relationship between our imagination, our ability to have ideas about things, and our vocabulary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a groundswell of opposition to the word cull began to grow and, in 2015, the debate reached a tipping point when an open letter to the OJD, coordinated by the naturalist Laurence Rose, was signed by artists and writers including Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland, Michael Morpurgo and Andrew Motion along with the brilliant illustrator Jackie Morris and the hugely acclaimed wordsmith, word collector, and defender of the natural world, Robert Macfarlane. âThere is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in childrenâs wellbeing,â the letter said. A heated debate in the national press ensued, both for and against the lost words, and the collaboration between Morris and Macfarlane was born.
The Lost Words makes no mention of the dictionary and Macfarlane deftly insults the OJD with a taste of its own medicine by ignoring it. Instead, in a book of spells rather than poems, exquisitely illustrated by Morris, Macfarlane gently, firmly and meticulously restores the missing words. Acorn, blackberry, bluebell, conker and âperhaps the one that cut the deepestâ for Morris, âkingfisherâ, are lovingly returned to future generations of children. It is a big, sumptuous, heavy book. A proportion of the profits will go to Action for Conservation, a charity that works with âdisadvantaged and socially excluded childrenâ and is âdedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural worldâ. Hamish Hamilton has no current plans for a paperback, and I think this is a shame, because a lighter, cheaper edition that could be tucked under a little oneâs arm and afforded by the school library will cross the social divide just by being there.
The acrostic spell-poems are designed to be read out loud. It is a book for adults and children, for adults to read with children. The spells carry the spirit of their subject in their structure. Take the brilliant âMagpie Manifesto: / Argue Every Toss! / Gossip, Bicker, Yak and Snicker All Day Long!â Not only are the word and the bird restored and celebrated, but the spirit and nature and the clatter of the magpie are conserved within its lines.
The Lost Words is a beautiful book and, in terms of ideas, an important one. I once asked a magician what he considered to be the defining characteristic of his art. âDirecting the gazeâ, he said. Re-enchantment, re-engagement and conservation of the natural world is ultimately only going to be possible if we retain the language with which to make it happen.
â¢ The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton (Â£20). To order a copy for Â£17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99