What’s to become of kids these days, with their damn pocket computers and inability to differentiate between bird species?
The Lost Words is a new book for people worried the next generation will lose touch with nature. Written by Robert Macfarlane with illustrations by Jackie Morris, it’s a catalogue and spelling book for kids, where the lost words in question comprise vocabulary about flora and fauna.
The 128-page book is told through acrostics—for acorns and ferns, otters and kingfishers. On its own, a book about animals for kids is nothing new; it’s as old a concept as books specially for children. But The Lost Words has an unusual backstory that begins, as more books should, with a lexicographical quibble.
In 2007, Oxford released a new edition of its “Junior” dictionary, aimed at kids aged seven and older. A handful of parents and pedants were critical of which words had been dropped from and added to the edition. Words about nature—”moss,” “blackberry,” and “bluebell”—were gone, and in their place, “blog,” “chatroom,” and “database.” (“Saint,” “chapel,” and “psalm” had also been removed.) The dictionary made more cuts in 2012: “Cauliflower” and “clover” were supplanted by “broadband” and “cut and paste.”
In 2015, authors Margaret Atwood, Helen Macdonald, and Macfarlane, among other novelists and nature writers, expressed their dismay in an open letter to Oxford University Press. “Childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem,” they wrote.
“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used,” Oxford told the Guardian in response, “Rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages.”
In his new book, Macfarlane doesn’t appear to name the dictionary debate directly, but there’s a veiled mention in the introduction:
Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone! … To read [the book] you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and appearances.
The Lost Words comes out Oct. 5 from Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK.