Friday, 10 April 2015

Words & Robert Macfarlane

Sometimes friends give me books about words, those magical mystery elements that make up what we read, what we say and what we write. There's no accounting for the words we love. For me, crystal, latitude, starlight, compelling roll off the tongue with such gladness. Others, for unfathomable reasons, make me shudder - purse, moist, pleasant, amusing. Urrrggh!
Sometimes there are no ideal words for special things that might deserve a word of their own - those glassy drops of dew that enclose tiny rainbows of colour when the sun first strikes, or the distinctive, combined colours of sweet peas.

The most recent book I received is The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal, the godfather of English linguistics. "Every word has been selected because it tells us something about the way the English language developed". It’s fun to pick it up and see the contribution made to our language by even simple words such as 'and', 'out', 'loaf' and 'taffeta'. I’m loving dipping into it every night before sleep.
Before that a prized gift from a friend up north was Mark Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence, so witty and full of startling information that I've since bought copies for quite a few other friends who have in turn bought it for others - word-lovers all.
But yesterday I came across something very special. In February Robert Macfarlane, British academic and travel writer, wrote an article for The Guardian on 'rewilding the language of landscape'. (No, that’s not a typo). In it he cites a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary in which, he says, "there had been a culling of words concerning nature, words that Oxford University Press felt were no longer relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, otter, pasture and willow.” All gone. But new words had been added, among them attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, chatroom, celebrity and blockgraph.
Much of the lost list is quintessentially English but even in Australia we must surely mourn the turfing out of bluebells to make way for blockgraph (whatever that is).
I know that language must change, that it is a living, evolving creature over which we who love it have almost no control. The rapid Americanisation of our own Australian idiom is a trend that seems relentless. We now have buddies and sidewalks, flashlights and rush-hour and – heaven help us, homeland security.
But to escape all that for a while and to reflect on the beauty of the language of landscape, do read Robert Macfarlane’s February essay and maybe contemplate a list of Australia’s own lost words.

1 comment:

  1. How sad to think that such delightful words might disappear. I understand that any language must evolve, but perhaps we should consider being just a tad more protective of our language in a similar fashion to France? Did they not ban English words from being used?


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