Regular followers of my blog will know that I am concerned about words fading out of the English language. So imagine my dismay when I read recently that the Oxford University Press has expunged several words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. And no, the deleted words are not out of use or particularly outdated, they are just apparently not ‘relevant to a modern day childhood’. The missing words include acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, kingfisher, otter and even conker. And the words taking their place in the new edition include broadband, blog, bullet point and, wait for it, celebrity!
It worries me that so many of the excluded words refer to our countryside, our fauna and flora. Do we really want to educate the next generation to give priority to cut-and-paste, voicemail and chatroom, over pasture, cowslip and cygnet?
Of course it is not just the younger generation who are at risk of losing vocabulary. Robert Macfarlane, the author of the fascinating book, Landmarks, believes that our language has the power to shape our sense of place. Robert Macfarlane has been on a eight year quest to find lost, or nearly lost, words pertaining to the natural world. So he gives us ammil – a Devon term for that thin film of winter ice that lacquers leaves and twigs and makes the whole landscape glitter; zwer – an Exmoor term for a the sound of partridges taking flight; and the English dialect word, smeuse, for the hole under a hedge made by the regular passing of small animals. Is the loss of these words a sign that we are losing our connection with the natural world? Certainly we are losing our ability to describe it.
Once we were able to rely on poets to coin new words, Gerard Manley Hopkins used shivelight for the lances of sunlight that penetrate the canopy of a wood, and John Clare invented crizzle for the light freezing of a pond.
As we have already lost so many words, perhaps the onus is on us writers to invent more. Or maybe we should just borrow them from other languages. It wouldn’t be the first time. Gaston Dorren, author of the language-lovers book, Lingo, points out that English has been borrowing foreign words for years.
Spanish has for example given us cork, guitar, chocolate and barbeque – where would we be without those? Czech gave us robot, German, quartz, glitz and (perhaps not quite so welcome) blitz. Dutch has given us cruise, coleslaw and smuggler.
Not only does Gaston Dorren tell us the words we have already taken, he also suggests others we could usefully steal – one of his favourites being the German, Gönnen, the exact opposite of envy, to be gladdened by someone’s good fortune. It existed in old English, but it seems we have lost the habit!
Maybe it is time to get some of the old words back, and the old habits, including our powers of observation. So next time you are relishing your own good fortune in taking a walk through the British countryside, keep a look out and see if you can spot a smeuse …