For over a decade I have been collecting place-words: gleaned singly from conversations, correspondences, or books, and jotted down in journals or on slips of paper. Now and then I have hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular dictionaries or extraordinary people—troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages. One such trove turned up on the moors of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 2007. There, I was shown a “Peat Glossary”: a word-list of the hundreds of Gaelic terms for the moorland that stretches over much of Lewis’s interior. Some of the language it recorded was still spoken—but much had fallen into disuse.
The same year I first saw the Peat Glossary, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. 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 no 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. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.
The substitutions made in the dictionary—the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual—are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for differ-ent trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP deletions removed the “euphonious vocabulary of the natural world—words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.”
Consider ammil, a Devon term meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost,” a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”; and another, klett, for “a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore.” On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now that I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.
The variant English terms for icicle—aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cumbria)—form a tinkling poem of their own. Blinter is a northern Scots word meaning “a cold dazzle,” connoting especially “the radiance of winter stars on a clear night,” or “ice-splinters catching low light.” Instantly the word opens prospects: walking sunwards through snow late on a midwinter day, with the wind shifting spindrift into the air such that the ice-dust acts as a prismatic mist, refracting sunshine into its pale and separate colors; or out on a crisp November night in a city garden, with the lit windows of houses and the orange glow of street light around, while the stars blinter above in the cold high air.
I would not have guessed at the existence of quite so many terms for animal dung, from crottle (a foresters’ term for hare excrement) to doofers (Scots for horse shit) to the expressive ujller (Shetlandic for the “unctuous filth that runs from a dunghill”) and turdstool (West Country for a very substantial cowpat). Nor did I know that a dialect name for the kestrel, alongside such felicities as windhover and bell-hawk, is wind-fucker. Once learnt, never forgotten—it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver.
In The History of the Countryside, the great botanist Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which “landscape is lost”: through the loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning. I admire the way that aesthetics, human experience, ecology, and semantics are given parity in his list. Of these losses the last is hardest to measure.
I do not, of course, believe that such words will magically summon us into a pure realm of harmony and communion with nature. Rather that they might offer a vocabulary that is “convivial” as the philosopher Ivan Illich intended the word—meaning enriching of life, stimulating to the imagination, and “encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature.” And, perhaps, that the vibrancy of perception evoked in these glossaries may irrigate the dry metalanguages of modern policymaking (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for instance, offers such tautological aridities as “Land use: the use to which a piece of land is put”). For there is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages.
As I have traveled, I have come to understand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. I met a painter in the Hebrides who used landskein to refer to the braid of blue horizon lines in hill country on a hazy day; and a five-year-old girl who concocted honeyfur to describe the soft seeds of grasses held in the fingers. John Constable invented the verb to sky, meaning “to lie on one’s back and study the clouds.” We have forgotten ten thousand words for our landscapes, but we will make ten thousand more, given time.
Of course there are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo—or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, “Wow.”
The text that appears here is adapted from Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, forthcoming from Trafalgar in June.