"The Lost Words" -- a review by Susan Price

This book really doesn't need any help from me. It's already a classic. But I wanted to review it because I love it.

I wanted to read it from the moment I first heard how it was inspired:-- during one of the regular revisions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, it was decided to exclude certain words, which modern children no longer looked up or needed-- words such as 'bluebell', 'heron,' and 'conker'-- in order to make room for words such as 'broadband' and 'wi'fi'.

The book's wonderful artist, Jackie Morris, was incensed by this. She tells about how the book came about here. (The beautiful picture at the top of this blog is from Jackie's site.)

Many other writers and artists were aghast when they heard about these words being dropped. There is a theory of language that says that when you lose the word for something, you also lose the ability to think about it or consider it important. It becomes something nameless-- and if people haven't even bothered to name something, it can't be important, can it?

Theory apart, how the hell can you dispense with the word 'bluebell'? Every year I go to view the miles of bluebells in the woods on the Clent hills. Somehow, it wouldn't be the same if I walked there thinking, "What a lot of blue flowers."

Rather, when I look down a slope covered with blue and see the blue spreading and filtering through the trees, it adds a lot to know that these are bluebells, wild hyacinths and that such masses of them indicate 'undisturbed ancient woodland.'

But how can  'heron' ever  be considered a word that isn't  necessary in  a children's dictionary? Or dandelion? Dandelion, for god's sake. Dandelion piss-the-bed: dandelion clocks-- how do you even be a child without knowing the word dandelion and what it represents? As well get rid of 'daisy' or 'buttercup.'

I had been trying to work out how to get my paws on a copy of the book, since its beautiful production makes it expensive... While I was still wondering, I saw a tweet from Jackie Morris herself, commenting in surprise that the third Sterkarm book, A Sterkarm Tryst, was in print.

I have a slight aquaintance with Ms. Morris-- I wouldn't presume to claim it to be anything more. So I tweeted back with a suggestion that we do swapsies. I would send her a copy of Tryst (wot I wrote) if she would send me one of The Lost Words.
A Sterkarm Tryst

I think I got the better end of the deal. The book arrived in the post some weeks ago and I have kept it to hand and dipped into it frequently ever since.

It's a much larger book than you might guess from the picture above. And it isn't a book of poems with illustrations. The artist and poet are equals here-- the initial idea came from Jackie Morris and she tells us how writer and artist influenced each other.

Robert Macfarlane, a prize winning poet and writer, has written 'a book of spells'-- the intention being to spell the lost words back into our memories and useage.

Each spell is introduced by a double-page spread where letters blow and tumble among grasses or fern or trees-- as if the lost words were being broken and scattered. Or, perhaps are being called back, spelled back together.

The poems are acrostics, so the word in danger of being lost is spelled, not only in the title, but in the reading and writing of the spell. And the poems are beautiful. The more often you read them--spelling back those lost words-- the more beauty you find in them.

Facing each poem is one of Jackie Morris' rightly celebrated paintings. And then, over the page, a double spread painting-- paintings of acorns, brambles, owls, bluebells, magpies...

 I love the whole book, but I think my favourite part is Bluebell. The beautiful poem is followed by a breathtaking double page showing an owl fleeting and a fox slinking through the dusk of a bluebell wood.

But otters, ravens, newts, willow, adders-- you'll find them all here. Magpies too. I love the magpies who 'gossip, bicker, yak and snicker' in my garden. Love their flying dinosaur shapes, their long tails and petrol blue sheen. Currently they are pulling my hedge to bits for nesting material and flying off towing long streamers of dried grass behind them.

"A proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words will be donated to Action for Conservation, a charity dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural world.... www.actionforconservation.org"

In Scotland, Jane Beaton has raised £25,000 to give the book to all 2,681 schools in Scotland-- for more about this story, follow this link.


Susan Price is the author not only of A Sterkarm Tryst, but also of The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss-- as well as about 60 other books. You can find out more about them on her website, here.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this beautifully expressed endorsement of "The Lost Words," a book I've put on my to-read list straightaway. One advantage of the Internet and computers is that we don't have to kill words to make space for others - at least hardly at all. So bluebells can flourish in wifi space. But the poignance of endangered word-species lingers. Too many poetic, elegant and precise words continue to fall by the wayside in favor of popularly overused overused cliches. It's up to us writers to be their protective game wardens.
Enid Richemont said…
This is so moving. It also doesn't make any sense to do this - as Umberto says, the Internet is huge, and there's always space, so why impoverish our language, or indeed, anyone's language? If it's true that the Innuit have a huge number of words for snow, bring them on. And please - what DO we call those lovely violet-blue flowers that grace our woodlands in Springtime? And are 'snowdrops' included in the word cull?
Bill Kirton said…
Wonderful, Susan. The book sounds irresistible, so I've ordered it. Thank you.
Susan Price said…
Thank you all for your comments. It really is a beautiful book.
What a great idea for a book, although like the other people who've commented I am really quite upset by the fact that it's needed in the first place. The book looks and sounds very beautiful too.
I love the eye-catching goldfinches on the cover... they remind me of one of my favourite books as a child, which was a huge tome about birds with lots of colourful illustrations.

But I had no idea about these words being lost... the flowers and birds are sad enough, but conkers? Don't kids collect them any more? If bluebells and herons have gone, I'm guessing 'tryst' isn't in there, either?
Debbie Young said…
Following the Scottish example, our local bookseller Hereward Corbett, proprietor of the Yellow-Lighted Bookshops in Tetbury and Nailsworth, recently ran a successful - in fact, over target - crowdfunder to get a copy of Lost Words into every primary school on Gloucestershire. He will also be kindly donating a copy to our village school when he comes to talk about tbe project at the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest on 21st April. Such a powerful book!
julia jones said…
thank you -- have been aware for a while, not taking action. your review has changed this

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