Some Notes on The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

This year Santa sent a beautiful book to our family,* and I had to stop and write a few words about it because it has become a favorite evening ritual, and reading it aloud to our sons has made me stop and think about things like why we read aloud and how verbalizing certain things helps call them into being. Also other things like how woefully detached we are from the natural world and how we really need to just go ahead and buy that farmland already…

The Lost Words is a project that started as an indignant outcry. In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled certain nature-related words from its selection, while those from…oh, let’s say…current media-driven culture were newly included. Acorn was rejected, celebrity added; weasel got the boot but vandalism found a place. While we all have hot takes of varying intensity, related to the yearly choice of words by the OED, there is something particularly offensive about this process of elimination occurring within the context of a dictionary for young people. First off, because we were probably less likely to hear about it (because really, who knows what’s going on the world of childhood education). And secondly, because the symbolic gesture of removing certain pieces of the imaginary from young people, those who need it most, and giving them instead a glut of words to describe a modern world in peril is just too much.

Children are themselves but they are also a metaphor for the depths of our collective imaginative potential. To see the world through the eyes of a child and all that . . . It is probably an unfair ask** of them, to be responsible for something of such magnitude. And yet here we are. So, to remove words from the dictionary widely used in their educational environments is to remove in some way the hope for our own imaginative potential as a society. It is to limit ourselves and our experience.

And so, from this vaguely dystopian tragedy of a story comes The Lost Words, with the conceit that it is not a children’s book or a book of poetry per se, but rather a “spell book” for calling the natural world back into being.

I must say, I found the “spell book” aspect of this lovely tome to be a bit of a gimmick at first. Why not simply call it a book of poetry? It sounded very tapping-into-a-certain-market-y. And I might have continued to think that if I hadn’t started reading the book to my kids at night. There is something about these poems, which are all acrostics, that feels a bit “more”-ish. The way the words twist around your tongue and allow you to playfully, or seriously, rattle off alliterative adjectives makes you feel exactly as though you might be calling something forth, or at least sending a little blessing out into the world.

I’ve written elsewhere about the power of reading aloud, in the context of my studies in bibliotherapy. I’ve been interested over the past few years in the way that certain passages or statements transform words into a condensed moment of meaning. We have these packages of cultural memory that stick with us through centuries, and in doing so, cross the line from written to spoken: bible verses, clichés, fables, proverbs, affirmations, first lines from famous books, declarations, manifestos, the list goes on. These are part of the basic intertext of being human. And so, to recite, or to read aloud is to tap into this collective memory and let it work through you in some way.

And of course, this all makes sense. We began this human destiny as creatures mired in spoken stories. Words, if given a chance, will always try to free themselves from the page and return to us.

I think that’s where the “spell” element of the book comes in. It reflects the particular conjuring ability that spoken words can have, from prayers to pacts. And it asks us to participate in the important task of saving what we can of the natural world, even if our only means is a hope-filled evocation, born of defiance against a vocabulary that would rid itself of bluebells and kingfishers, and grounded in the wonder and enchantment that is found in encountering their ilk.

*Sometimes I buy things that I want, and label them as gifts from Santa. Are you doing this? Everyone should do this. Especially if you, like me, are the mom saddled with the entirety of the holiday shopping. Did you hand wrap presents for international shipping? Bake homemade goods for teachers? Santa should check off your whole dang list.
(One year my mom ordered herself the entire Black Adder box set, and I think it was the first moment that, as a teenager, I realized that she was an actual person and not just my mom. Inspirational.)

**Hmm, I wonder if “ask” as a noun is in the OED yet…will have to look into that.

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