Vocabulary is rarely so rich, so thick with branch and twig, as in the realm of flora and fauna. Plants and animals go by all sorts of strange and evocative names depending on where you are and whom you’re talking with. One local term for the kestrel, reports Robert Macfarlane in an article in Orion, is wind-fucker. Having learned the word, he writes, “it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver.”
I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney’s translation of a Middle English poem, “The Names of the Hare”:
The wimount, the messer,
the skidaddler, the nibbler,
the ill-met, the slabber.
The quick-scut, the dew-flirt,
the grass-biter, the goibert,
the home-late, the do-the-dirt.
It goes on that way for a couple dozen more lines, each of which brings you a little closer to the nature of the beastie.
Macfarlane’s piece, drawn from his forthcoming book Landmarks, was inspired by the discovery that a great dictionary for kids, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, is being pruned of words describing the stuff of the natural world. Being inserted in their place are words describing the abstractions and symbols of the digital and bureaucratic spheres:
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.
They yanked out bluebell and put in bullet-point? What shit-asses.
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 different trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.
As Macfarlane goes on to say, the changes in the dictionary don’t just testify to our weakening grasp on nature. Something else is being lost: “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.”
I’m sure that many will label Macfarlane and Porter “romantics.” I’ve begun to notice that romantic is replacing Luddite and nostalgist as the insult-of-choice deployed by techno-apologists to dismiss anyone with more expansive interests than their own. That, too, is telling. It’s always been a sin against progress to look backward. Now it’s also a sin against progress to look inward. And so, fading from sight and imagination alike, the world becomes ever vaguer to us — not mysterious but peripheral, its things unworthy even of being named. Who now would think of the wind as something that might be fucked?
Photo: Rick Cameron.