This Christmas, I read my 3-year-old son The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris — a ‘spell book’ of poems and illustrations with the neat hook of celebrating nature words that have vanished from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in recent years.
Unprompted, he simply started naming the birds whose names he didn’t know. Here’s the result…
Camilo’s new words
- Canderlop — Heron
- Gaiun — Raven
- Kindercorn — Buzzard
- Cheep — Wood Pigeon
- Arandadoe — Sparrow
- Lockantanj — Lark
(The kingfisher and the magpie, which he already recognises, he simply called by their known names. Making up a name would be stupid, obviously.)
The Lost Words has gone as viral as a large illustrated hardback can. It has spawned campaigns to get a copy into every primary school in Scotland, Herefordshire and no doubt elsewhere by now. It has touched a nerve.
The book makes the point that such things as the kingfisher or the dandelion have had other names that have fallen out of use. Kingfishers have been known as halcyon, evening angler and rainbow bird; dandelions as lion’s tooth, windblow and milkwitch.
They also make up new names: colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker and river’s quiver for the kingfisher. Bane of lawn perfectionists, fallen star of the football pitch and scatterseed for dandelion.
I expected The Lost Words to teach my son natural words we are losing. Instead, it led to him creating brand new words for birds he had never seen before. It turns out we’ll never stop speaking. It’s what we see that shapes our language.