Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Book of Lost Words

RHYS BOWEN: I was doing an event at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale during the holiday season when owner Barbara Peters showed me a book. "You have to see this," she said. I did and bought it instantly.

It's called THE LOST WORDS. And it conveys a worrying and serious message. The latest edition of the Oxford Junior  Dictionary has removed  around 40 words it no longer considers relevant for young people so that it has room for words more important for our latest technology. Blog, broadband, voice-mail etc. I could understand this if the words were like "forsooth" or "perambulation".

But they are not: they are words from nature, words I consider highly relevant and important to everyone. And so did the writer and illustrator of this book: Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris.
And so they created this gorgeous work of art. Robert MacFarlane describes himself as a collector of words and is a professor at Cambridge. Jackie is a distinguished artist and illustrator of many books. For each of the words they have chosen Robert has written an acrostic. The whole book is such a treat for the senses, a perfect coffee table book, but it carries such a powerful message....

you'll understand when I tell you the words that have been removed from the Junior OED





Are these not absolutely essential words in the vocabulary of any young person?

The acrostics are powerful poetry in themselves.

Here is the one for Acorn:

As flake is to blizzard, as
Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as
One is to many, as coin is to money, as bird is to flock, as
Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
   spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as
Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as
    feather is to flight, as light is to star, as
    kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

Aren't these brilliant? And page after page of museum-worthy illustrations too. Thank you, Barbara for thrusting this at me.

So what do you think? Should our dictionaries be revised to keep up with the times? Should we lose words of our childhood? Should a child grow up not knowing what an acorn or a bluebell or a kingfisher are?

The Book is The Lost Words, Published by Anansi Books, (


  1. Thank you, Rhys, for telling us about this book and about the travesty of removing these words . . . .

    I have no real objection to having words added to the dictionary, but it hurts me to know that someone made the decision to remove these words, that someone has decided they no longer have any use or value. And yet, to me, these words feel like an essential part of our vocabulary.
    I don’t understand taking away words . . . .

  2. Publish a longer book!! Yikes. This is scary. I tutor young children and am often amazed by their limited vocabularies. And thanks for the recommendation.

  3. This is sad, and what a beautiful book. Children who read widely will always have those words, but those who don't? It's a sorry state.

    But...what's a conker?

    1. It's a horse chestnut, and conkers is a game little boys (and girls) play. They tie a string on their conker and then try to break the conker of another. It is essential to childhood.

    2. Confers is a game that is probably archaic now although all the boys played it when I was young. Lovely shiny brown horse chestnuts on a string. Now it's play stations instead. Sigh.

    3. And I notice autocorrect changed conkers to confers and tried to do so again right now! Autocorrect is a term I could do without!

    4. Thanks! We sure didn't play that in California in the 50s and 60s - but then, we didn't have horse chestnuts, either...

  4. I think I am going to cry! Why would these words be removed? Words open up worlds!
    My Nana had a dictionary from The Readers Digest. Every time I would be at the house, I would ask to read it. I read when I was 4, and remember sounding out words and learning their definition. This dictionary even has Spanish, French and German sections, which was how I fell in love with languages! There are Science and Biology sections, a section that teaches Morse Code and the Nautical Flags for semaphore. There are the flags for all of the countries, music symbols, etc.
    This dictionary was passed to me by my Nana when I was in 4th grade. I still have it. It is a treasure and even though I have an Oxford dictionary and several others, this dictionary is still my favourite!
    Edith, a conker is a horse chestnut. You can even play a game that entails putting a string on said conker and you and a friend can swing your conkers at each other, trying to break the conkers!

  5. Fascinating book and frustrating situation

  6. Looking at our OED, the one you have to read with a magnifying glass, the one that weighs half as much as I do. Trust me. There is room for 40,000 more words, never mind 40, without removing a single one.

    50 years ago or so my father sat on a committee to revise some dictionary, a most interesting enterprise that took years. When they were nearly done, they found they had left out the word FIRE. This is what happens when you turn a bunch of academics loose. Don't let it happen to you.

    1. Ann, maybe they were too Fired up, and that's why they forgot! Should they all have been FIRED?

  7. What a lovely book! I don't understand why these words would be removed. I mean, there are still otters and dandelions, right? Wouldn't we still need the words for them, and children still need to learn them? I don't get it.

  8. I'm okay with taking out words we truly don't use (as you said, what kid uses "forsooth"?). But acorn? Really?


  9. Leave them all in--even 'forsooth'. Who knows what you might need that word for, the lovely syllables slipping over a child's tongue. Or perhaps someday they'll read something that's not a meme and find they need to look up one of those ancient words. But dandelion? It's enough to make me go back to bed this morning and pull the covers over my head. Words are like love, our vocabulary can handle lots and lots and lots of (okay, many) additions--our brains won't run out of space!

  10. The Lost Words is a lovely book. Thank you Rhys to bring this subject that I was not aware of . I don't think they should remove words from a dictionary. And I'm thinking now that they surely do the same in French. It is very sad.

  11. That is the saddest thing I have ever seen—eulogies for words?
    And it’s almost bizarrely wrong-headed —if a kid reads a book that contains a word they don’t know or that’s unusual, wouldn’t that be the very word that should be there?

  12. I'm glad I'm not in charge of deciding which words to drop in a dictionary for 'juniors'... I appreciate the need to keep it accessible, relevant. But removing nature to make way for technology? Apparently they also dropped a bunch of terms related to religion and British history such as “bishop” and “monarchy”... so big flap in the UK. SNOPES has an interesting entry on it:

  13. Thanks to the Oxford Junior Dictionary there is now an entire niche market for wonderful new books! The "Lost Words" is a work of art!

    I wonder if the Oxford Junior Dictionary included "oxymoron"?

  14. Could it be that those words are considered words that kids will always know and therefore don't need to be defined? If so, I can't imagine their thought processes. Wait, were they thinking at all?

  15. The Book of Lost Words is beautiful. I probably need to add it to my own library. As for the word removals, that's just blasphemy, although it sounds to me like the people who made the decisions were urban folk, not suburban/rural folk. Out in the country one might see acorns and herons and ravens every day, but search in vain for broadband.

  16. The loss of words leaves me nearly speechless.

    When we were kids we learned early on that if you come across a strange word in something you’re reading, you look it up in the dictionary. Both in school and at home we were encouraged to expand our vocabularies. I don’t want to think about what this new development is doing to both spoken and written language.


  17. I'm appalled and heartbroken that these words were deemed unworthy and unimportant. Poe is probably spinning in his grave over "Raven." Having a nine-year-old granddaughter who loves nature and to whom every one of these words means something special, it saddens me greatly that they mean so little to those discarding them. Rhys, I must have this amazing book. Thank you for featuring it today.

  18. Buying my copy right now! Thank you, Rhys!

  19. How in the world are these words considered useless?

    Acorn - You see those lying around on the ground around trees here all the time.

    Adder - I think it would be important to have a word to describe a snake that could kill you.

    Bluebell - If nothing else, it's the first name of a creamery for crying out loud!

    Bramble - Didn't Hallmark make a movie called "A Bramble House Christmas" in the last couple of years? So I guess we just have to retitle it "A House Christmas" now.

    Conker - I admit, I had to look this one up. Which apparently I can't do with the Oxford Junior Dictionary anymore.

    Dandelion and Fern - Wouldn't it be nice to be able to put a name to these flower/plant thingamajigs?

    Heather - Apparently we can't identify this plant either. Much less refer to an old friend of mine with that name.

    Heron - What is that long legged bird in the water called? Oh, I guess we don't know anymore.

    Ivy - So young people shouldn't know what that stuff growing on the walls of Wrigley Field in Chicago are called? Is the name of the DC Comics villainess now just Poison?

    Kingfisher and Lark - Boy, birdwatching is getting its butt kicked with this list isn't it?

    Magpie - Another bird species bites the dust and apparently that Anthony Horowitz mystery is being retitled "The Murders".

    Newt - Boy, J.K. Rowling must be ticked about this one. I hope no young people are watching those Fantastic Beasts movies, they won't understand the lead character's name now. And I guess teen witches are screwed since the spellcasting will now just call for Eye of...

    Otter - Seriously? Don't they need to know the name of the creature in all those videos that noted mystery critic Oline Cogdill posts on her Facebook page?

    Raven - No more NFL team in Baltimore I guess. And I'm curious to know who now quoths "Nevermore"?

    Starling - When does the national birdwatching group start their protesting?

    Weasel - Another animal goes nameless, and people use a great insult to describe scumbag people they know.

    Willow - Apparently those trees are just going to be known as weeping now? Oh, and I guess one of the girls from a family of daughters I coached in basketball is now nameless.

    I'm not necessarily the wordiest of wordsmiths, but I at least KNOW the darn words. And young people should too. They should not mind being held to the higher standard of having a vocabulary, they should mind being held to the lower standard that the Oxford Junior Dictionary seems to be establishing for them.

  20. I am surprised that these words were removed! I wonder why. I want to read the Lost Words book. In my opinion, I think these words needs to remain in the dictionary. A friend named their dog Starling. And there is a novel titled "Mozart's Starling".


  21. If every time there are 40 new words we must delete 40 "old words," we are headed down a very strange, dark, and scary road, a road where knowledge and memory and the ability to accurately express oneself is lost. 😪

    1. And "autocorrect" is tied in there somewhere too...

  22. What?!? Acorn? Willow? Dandelion? I'm stunned. I love all of these words! This makes me sad. Yet, the book is so beautiful. And a brilliant concept. I will have to get this book! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  23. Adding this to the column under the heading "Stuff I Don't Understand".

    I mourn the loss of intelligence, full stop.

  24. Shalom Reds and fans. When I was a kid and even now, I loved the book Many Moons by James Thurber. It was about a little princess who became ill from eating a surfeit of raspberry tarts. To this day, I love the word surfeit. (I loaned the book to a friend of mine and her son wanted to know what the word ‘ill’ meant. I remember Dr. Seuss had an alphabet book called On Beyond Zebra, I think. It was a book about made up letters needed to spell made up things.

    I must admit I get annoyed when people start using nouns as verbs and verbs as adjectives. But now I may have to reconsider.

    When I was a kid and would argue passionately with my dad about something, he might say to me, “David, why do you have to be so obstreperous.” I am sure the first time, I had no idea what it meant, however, I learned soon enough.

    I remember being perhaps ten, and I was so fascinated with the pool table at the local community center. I saved my allowance for the longest time (I think my dad matched what I could save) and purchased my own pool cue. It was two pieces that fit in a carrying case and you would screw the pieces together when playing. Some of the older kids wanted to bully me into letting them use it to take their shots but they weren’t treating it with the care I thought it deserved. They would contend with me and ask “Why not?” and I would answer, “That’s my ‘prerogative’.” It was months til I heard the end of that.

    Now that I've started reading police procedurals set in England, if I am using my Amazon Kindle app I can access the dictionary by just highlighting the word. I do it for just those words that seem to be particularly important otherwise it would disrupt the flow of the reading. I love words.

    1. David, my father used to make up words similar to obstreperous . He'd say " don't be so aquenotious' and similarly ridiculous words that I took for gospel until I tried to look them up in the dictionary!

  25. I am appalled!
    Is this like the joke about the NYTimes "all the news that's fit to print" saying "all the news that fits"?!
    Let the mourning continue.
    Libby Dodd

    1. It's impossible to finish many New York Times crossword puzzles without Newts and Efts.

  26. I'm gobsmacked (probably another word not in the "dictionary".

    There's not a word there that I don't consider essential to understand in the world around us. I suppose if one is raised in the inner city and never leaves that neighborhood, and never cares about what they can't see, then many these words may not be relevant, but what about the rest of the Juniors, not to mention knowledge???

    I went to Barnes & Noble to buy this book this morning. They didn't have it but offered to order it, take about two weeks. Good grief. Amazon will have it here Tuesday.

  27. What a beautiful book but how upsetting that it had to be written. I don't understand how acorn can be replaced by broadband. This makes no sense to me. In my mind, acorns are forever but broadband, given how technology morphs and changes, is not. Right? Ugh, I need to go put my head down.

  28. When we lose words, we lose history. Take "dandelion." There is no Old English word for this flower. Both name and plant arrived in England from medieval France ("dent de lion," lion's tooth). So we know that dandelions were not a roadside weed in Anglo-Saxon times, but were intentionally introduced into Norman English households, no doubt for culinary purposes. Like many common plant names, dandelion is descriptive. If you've watched the MGM lion roar, you've seen the sharp curve in the dandelion's leaf.

    Thus endeth my sermon.

    1. I knew that the name was French but did not know it was intentionally introduced . I love that we are always learning things on this blog

  29. What? Those are very important words, and words you should be learning as a kid.

  30. This is the definition of ironic! They are deleting words kids might not know, to replace them with words every kid DOES know and uses daily. I'm thankful for the beautiful new book with lush illustrations and beautiful poetry, but as for the reason it was written? Pfffft.

  31. City kids see nature, too. My street is lined with oak trees, and the lawns with dandelions. We should keep all the words. What if someone wants to read an old book or do historical research? Try to read something in Old English and imagine how much harder if you can't look up the words!

  32. How can they remove RAVEN of all words, given the bird (and thus the word's) historical connection with the Tower of London and protecting the crown? At least kids will still be able to google these words. Sigh...

  33. I'm shocked at this and so glad you told us about it. I don't understand how these beautiful things from nature can be considered irrelevant with all the lovely connotations and memories they inspire.

  34. Sally's comment about not being able to read an old book or do historical research made me think about how cursive writing is also being phased out in some school districts and how awful it would be if children (and adults) could not read old documents and letters in the future. Some things simply should not be allowed to be lost.

  35. Oh, Robert MacFarlane once tweeted one of my favorite words: glisk, which is "a glitter of sunlight; a glow of heat from a fire; a glint or twinkle in a person's eye. Figuratively, a glimpse of the good, a brief burst of warmth or hope." Now that's a word to keep in your pocket, isn't it?