ECOS 39 (1): Book Reviews: The Lost Words


A Spell book

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

London: Penguin, Hamish Hamilton
Hardback, £20
ISBN: 978-0-241-25358-8

A proportion of the royalties goes to Action for Conservation.

Review and supplementary discussion by Martin Spray

Here is a book to bring back memories. It reminds me of my daughter’s modest delight when she acted as my botany demonstrator for a  class of undergrads  surveying a site for housing. They were admiring of her knowledge of the names of the area’s plants – so much more than theirs. She was six.

If our society’s plant knowledge is meagre, our knowledge of animals is just as thin, and is depressingly lacking in details. Ecolinguist Arran Stibbe argues that increasingly our meetings with animals happen not at first-hand but after mediation by television, books, magazines (ECOS included), the internet, etc., 1 and that this erases much of their potential impact on us – they can’t eat us, or even sting us; but they are more exposed to us – or, we can replay the video ad nauseam.

This ‘erasure’ is sometimes the terminal one of extinction; more often we simply stop using their names. I am constantly bemused that naturalists and nature conservationists are not railing against the weasel-friendly, omnibus, substitute ‘biodiversity’, and against the ignoring of most living things that need something stronger than a hand-lens to help us see them. We are blind to so many of the things that we see around us, but cannot perceive because, as it were, we’ve not been introduced to them.

Robert Macfarlane has done more than his bit to draw attention to aspects of the erasure that is going on, the annoying anonymising, and deliberate befuddling of our language by the jettisoning of ‘non-standard’ – especially non-scientific – and unofficial words, and their replacement – if any – by such bland-mode Newspeak as natural capital, sustainability, services, and of course biodiversity. Lost words comes two years after Landmarks – “a book about the power of language […] to shape our sense of place” 2 – and a decade after the angry ripples of complaints about the deleting of many ‘nature words’ from the new edition of the Oxford junior dictionary. 3 With Jackie Morris as a very effective artist, the hope is that The lost words will serve as a counterblast.

On a page size of 365 x 270 mm, the book’s 20 ‘spells’ each have six pages: two for the letters of the subject’s name scattered amongst other letters, differently coloured – the subject being not quite there; a page that gives the subject’s name (twice), then the spell itself; facing it a portrait of the subject; and then a 2-page  spread for a single portrait (e.g. raven), or a family (kingfishers), or a selection of examples (ferns). The initial letters of the spell spell the subject’s name. Thus ‘ivy’ has the short “I am ivy, a real high-flier; / Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire. / You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.”

The 20 spells are for acorn, adder,  bluebell, bramble, conker, dandelion, fern, heather, heron ivy, kingfisher, lark, magpie, newt, otter, raven, starling weasel, willow, wren. That is: trees (or parts thereof) 3, other plants 6, mammals 2, birds 7, other verts. 2, insects 0, all other organisms 0.

This seems to me a bit tame. Okay – we can leave marine beasts for another day, and – noting their critical importance – leave micros out of it; but why no fish; why not even a token butterfly or dragonfly? And why once more is the realm of ‘fungi’ left out? (What could be more appropriate for a spell? But perhaps their names were never ‘in’, to be lost).  Some of the plants and animals in the book seem too similar, but what is more important is that a wider diversity of subject might be more intriguing, less predictable, more provocative.

What do we mean by a spell?  Both its common senses -“words used as charm, incantation or its effect”, and the “fascination exercised by someone or something”- are highly relevant to Macfarlane’s and Morris’s hope to “conjure the near-lost magic, beauty and strangeness” of nature, and to ‘re-wild’ kids’ language.

It’s the second of the two, I think, that needs to be the more securely realised. Magic is great for play and performance, but fascination makes a stronger glue. And having a moniker is like having hooks that give some guarantee that an intrigued – fascinated – child will remain intrigued.

Strongly patterned, repetitive,  spoken or sung, poetic language, with words  that can stretch the child’s imagination without breaking it, perhaps helps to keep both image and words in view; though I suspect that hearing – repeatedly – such words as ‘newt’ and ‘fern’ – or ‘eft’, and ‘fern’ meaning specifically bracken, as it does where I live –  from adults makes a still stronger bond.

Some of the spells remind me of a spell I did as a primary school volunteer assistant. Some of the work involved inventing new names for wild flowers. However, in most cases suggested names were more references to everyday but up-to-date items the kids were familiar with rather than characteristics of the plants per se. The nicest example, from the Isle of Dogs, was Oxide Daisy….

The new names suggested by the Dandelion spell – Bane of Lawn Perfectionists and Fallen Star of the Football Pitch, instead of Lion’s Tooth or Windblow –  fit the pattern, as well as being rather Grown Up. Now: Macfarlane is a fine writer, but I do wonder what spells a McGough or a Macmillan might cast!

So: do I like the book? Yes. It is a delight to look through, the spells are quietly amusing, it is rich with ideas that children will find and ask about and which ought to prompt impromptu stories from parents and carers. Yet,  I don’t find it as innovatory as some suggest. It will probably help, but will need a lot of help. And remember that words have been dropping out of use and memory for a very long time.

Looking through Amazon pages, I came across these two comments. “What a wonderful book! I always treat myself to an illustrated book at Christmas.” “I’m keeping this for myself!.” This is the wrong audience.

1. Arran Stibbe Animals erased. Wesleyan University Press, 2012. See also Today we live without them: The erasure of animal and plants in the language of ecosystem assessment ECOS 33(1) 47-53, 2012.

2. Robert Macfarlane Landmarks, Hamish Hamilton ,2015.

3. ‘Removal of nature words from dictionary causes uproar’, The Canadian Press – December 09, 2008 (online): “This is another nail in the  coffin of human beings being acquainted with nature.[…] If you can’t name things, how can you love them?”


Reviewing the book prompted me to ask a sample of people, mostly ones known to have some interest in natural history and or environment, and in language, for examples of ‘lost words’ of some importance to them, yielded such examples as the following. There is no pretence that this is a ‘representative’ or an ‘objective’ sample – nonetheless it may prompt interesting thoughts.

First, an elderly local councillor in the Forest of Dean offers these examples from his childhood:

glat meaning a gap in the hedge

comps meaning candles: this was always used by his grandmother

elem-blough meaning elder flower, He spelt this  phonetically;  and thinks it probably a development from French.

yonder  His dad always used the word to mean a distant hill, and he would always point to the Herefordshire Hills and say ”The sun always shines on yonder hills”. He was believed to be referring to the Orcop , Garway area.

The councillor’s grandson writes of his interest in “the pre-Shakespearian Old English” of his forefathers, regretting that he is “two generations removed” from widespread vernacular Vorest, although he uses many Vorest words and pronunciations day-to-day with his awd butties (pals). These examples are now seldom heard: aral / arle for adder

bullock / bellockin  shouting, screaming loudly also the sound stags make during the rut

brunts = half burnt bits of wood left over from charcoal burns browst = sticks gaust = gorse bushes nesh = soft, weak, over-emotional or ‘soppy’ [My mother, in Sheffield, often used ‘nesh’, but only in reference to someone especially intolerant of the cold.

A naturalist and sometime secretary of national conservation councils writes of the loss of such words as

brock meaning badger, from Celtic

selkie a mythological creature in Scots, Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore

lords-and-ladies for the  wild arum  or cuckoo-pint

My friend also was saddened by the loss of the ‘correct’ meaning of that now omnipresent word, twitter….

It is the shifting or drifting of meaning of many words, with loss of their earlier meanings, that many people seem to be bewildered or saddened by, although it has always been something that happens to ‘living’ language. I share the annoyed dismay of a naturalist, consultant, and writer friend, who dislikes the vagueness of many of our words – ecosystem, for instance, and especially the mean-what-you-like sustainable development….

Examples of words that I miss include:

coney , a grown-up rabbit      

humble bee – not bumble-bee –because it humbles or buzzes loudly

brake, ‘fern’, more specifically ‘bracken’, perhaps initially meaning ‘thicket’

benty meaning land covered in bent i.e.stiff grass

touchwood for wood “in a state of extreme rottenness, with the property of tinder”. Smouldering in a little unfired clay box, this was a good handwarmer.

landscape – “the view to the eye”, now more or less equivalent to ‘land’

There was one other note I received that: included a prizewinning entry to the Salopian Poetry Society. By Vicky Hampton, it sums up the situation quite well.

Key Speech

“Dictionaries need to reflect the consensus experience

of childhood.” New Oxford Junior Dictionary 2015

It was honey in the mouths of children,

the language of hedgerows greening

their long summers – hazel, heather, fern.

They pow-wowed in leaf-littered hollows

beating nettles with whippy willow sticks,

thrashing wet beds of dandelions,

so totally tuned in to the rhythm of catkins

that worry translated to pollen

blown on the wind. But scholars

ruled their environment changed

and caned the root of a sweet lexicon.

They’ve replaced rural with virtual,

deleted the keys to the natural world –

kingfisher, cygnet, nectar, newt…


Spray, Martin “ECOS 39 (1): Book Reviews: The Lost Words” ECOS vol. 39(1) 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

Leave a Reply