Nature 2018 february

Wrong Words, Lost Words, New Words and a Book of Lost Words

If you know of the environmental campaigner and journalist George Monbiot you might agree he is somewhat a Bovril character. In other words you either love him or hate him. I admit I’m not his greatest fan. More often than not when he pops up on the TV to talk about the latest crisis with the planet I try my best but after a couple of minutes I’m often shouting at the screen and reaching for the remote control. He writes frequently for the Guardian where I find he is much more palatable.

Last year I came across one of his more grounded articles where he was bemoaning the creation of Wrong Words by scientists. By this I mean unattractive or overly technical words (aka jargon) when describing almost any aspect of the natural world. As a consequence, Monbiot argues that many people feel at best confused or worse excluded. One of many examples he gives is ‘an improved pasture’. We can all probably agree on what a ‘pasture’ looks like but what is it when it’s been ‘improved’. Imagine a manicured golf green treated with weed killer or a 100-acre field sown with a single species of grass grown for silage. How about a ‘no take zone’? Well it could be anything but it turns out to be an area of the sea demarcated on maps where fishing is not permitted.

On a more prosaic basis Monbiot suggests: “If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.”

Meanwhile, the trail in search of Lost Words actually stretches back quite a few years, so for now I will start in December last with a short item on the BBC2 news and current affairs programme Newsnight. The piece I am referring to was presented by Robert Macfarlane, a writer and academic with an overarching passion for promoting knowledge and improving understanding of the natural world. During the presentation he spoke about a research paper by Cambridge University conservationists who found that 8 to 11-year-old schoolchildren were ‘substantially better’ at identifying Pokemon characters than common examples of British wildlife.

Whilst the children could name 80% of 100 Pokemon characters they could name less than 50% of 100 common wildlife examples. The point I think he is making is that in contrast to probably 30 and certainly 40 years ago the range and variety of words relating to nature recognised by children has been falling. The researchers speculated there might be a correlation between the different levels of recognition and the proportions of time spent playing ‘computer games’ and trading Pokemon cards compared to the time spent reading stories and looking at picture books about animals or plants and being outside experiencing nature first hand.

Perhaps, on its own, this might seem a bit of a stretch and not conclusive proof that children’s falling awareness of nature is caused by their changing recreational habits. So those seeking some corroboration fell upon the idea of comparing editions of the Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia, published by OUP. Unlike the senior version which expands over time to accommodate new words, the junior edition is revised periodically with its content adjusted to reflect changes in the frequency of word usage. Robert Macfarlane and friends discovered that when the junior dictionary was revised in 2007 at least 120 nature-related words were removed en masse, being replaced by a similar number of ‘cool new words’, as Robert describes them. The removed words are…

adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren. Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut and willow.

There is nothing wrong with the new words, (eg. blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, citizenship, EU, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, Euro) it’s just a bit sad they have bounced out the older words.

The good news as far as these relegated words are concerned is that there is a groundswell of opinion led by well-known authors and naturalists campaigning to get OUP to restore a good number of these words. A petition has been started that has already reached 180,000. You can read more about the campaign at

Meanwhile, even some of the newer words are being seen less frequently. One wonders if there will be much use for ‘Euro’ in a couple of years!

A word of caution. I suspect it’s easy to look back on our childhood with rose-tinted glasses as have the older generations before us. I suspect nature lore was not as widely held in awareness as we might like to believe. For instance, there is evidence from Victorian and Edwardian diaries that the urban-dwelling upper and middle classes might have only seen value in limited learning about nature as part of lessons in drawing animals or plants.

New Words Needed! We have plenty of words describing collections of birds and animals, such as a murder of crows, or a colony of ants, etc. But there seems to be none in common usage for individual species of tree. So, having given it little thought I came up with: a bodge of beeches. Thinking about some of our other more abundant local trees, how about coming up with names for collections of ash, oak, chestnut and blackthorn?

A Book of Lost Words. If you are looking for a nature book to introduce a child (or adult) to nature I can strongly recommend a beautifully illustrated book whose title The Lost Words, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, is an attempt to reintroduce a few of these relegated nature words into common and everyday usage.

That’s all this time – comments and questions to

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