The lost words

Close up of the elongated coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) acorn with shingled top by Betsey Crawford

It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships…
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer ~

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed the word acorn from its print edition. Also the words blackberry, otter, willow, bluebell, and newt. Fifty such ‘nature words’ were eliminated and replaced by words like broadband, MP3 player, and chatroom. Taken to task, the publishers justified such switches by saying that their job was to reflect what children were actually talking about rather than what we wished they were. The lost words were still in their online edition. 

The reaction in Great Britain involved some wonderful things, starting with a letter signed by 28 authors. It said, in part, “There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing.” They cited research that found that 40% of children regularly played in natural areas just one generation ago. Today it’s 10%. A stunning 40% never play outdoors. “Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences.” A petition signed by 200,000 people followed the letter.

From The Lost Words: the art and spell for dandelion. Thanks to the Muir Trust for offering this poster for download.

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane and writer and artist Jackie Morris were two of the letter’s signatories. They then paired up to create the book whose title I’ve borrowed, The Lost Words, a collection of poems, spells, and luscious art illustrating twenty of the words. “You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words,” MacFarlane writes on the opening page. “Spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.”

The book’s reception was sensational. It was an instant bestseller. Awards poured in. A school bus driver in Scotland started a drive to get the book in every school in the country. People in other areas followed suit. The John Muir Trust issued a sumptuous guide for teachers and parents. Morris’s art was exhibited throughout Great Britain and decorates the walls of a new hospital. Music was composed in Britain and New York and commissioned by the Boston Symphony. Even graffiti artists have spread it around. Macfarlane, a well-known voice for nature and the environment, has used his wide platform to foster all this wonderful activity.

BLUEBELL: the Scottish version, harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), though this one is from Alaska

The response has been powerful, but the words — ten illustrated here — are still missing. And the thinking behind their loss persists. There is much to grapple with here. We have created a world where children are losing exposure not just to acorns or herons, but to the words that might lure their curiosity to discover more about them.

To learn, for example, about the power of acorns to become magnificent trees. Knowing an acorn leads you to a forest, to damp earth, to leaves eating sunlight and entwining roots reaching deep into the ground. To wild and mysterious underground webs of nourishment and information. To the many animals that eat acorns. The birds that nest in the branches. Who feed their nestlings the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs butterflies and moths leave in the nooks and crannies of bark. Removing acorn in favor of broadband is to sever connection with the deepest forces of nature.

That a major dictionary feels broadband better expresses where children are is an indictment of many facets of modern life. How we design our cities and towns in an increasingly urbanized world. The undervaluing of green and wild spaces within communities. What we expect and allow children to do, in school and out. The addictive quality of our technology. The programming and marketing that takes advantage of that addiction; actively studies how to insure it. A pace of life that makes time in nature a luxury many can’t afford, even if it’s available.

Unfolding fern frond in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
FERN: an unfolding frond in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

I have a deep appreciation for technology of all sorts. I create and communicate through it. Enjoy connecting with people, thoughts, and activities worldwide. It makes my life easier, adds interest and fun, brings fascinating challenges to my desk. It’s how I discovered Robert MacFarlane. So this is not an anti-technology essay.

But do 6- and 7-year-olds need to know the word analog over the playful antics of otters? Between 2007 and now, MP3 players have disappeared into obsolescence. Acorns, beeches, and dandelions — all of whom preceded us by hundreds of millions of years — are still with us.

This myopia reminds me of my essay on plant blindness, an all too common phenomenon. A Worldwatch Institute study found that Americans can identify over 1,000 corporate logos on sight, but fewer than 10 plants. We are more interested in animals, particularly those we commonly interact with. But we are allowing thousands to go extinct every year.

Insects, “the little things that run the natural world,” in naturalist E.O. Wilson’s words, are suffering an apocalypse. In North America, songbirds, who have been evolving since they were dinosaurs, have lost three billion of their population in the last 30 years.

Black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford
HERON: night heron in the Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

That makes the removal of heron, wren, lark, raven, magpie, starling, and kingfisher heartbreaking. Should we be eliminating them from consciousness because children don’t see them? Or should we be designing a greener world and bringing children into it? 

From me, of course, it is a rhetorical question. But I suspect if you went around the world asking, people would invariably choose a more accessible, greener world for their children. In fact, an excellent and very readable report from Britain’s National Trust found exactly that.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone really wants to lose touch with the magic and mystery of vivid, winged, singing creatures. We are certainly losing them; that doesn’t mean that we actively make that choice. But, despite the Trust’s findings that no one wants this, we are letting it happen.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford
BRAMBLE: salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

I have written about Richard Louv’s concept of nature deficit disorder before. In The Last Child in the Woods, he was most concerned about the structured, screen-bound, risk-averse world of children. Even in rural areas where nature is easy to find. After writing it, adults would tell him they were suffering from the same thing.

So in his following book, Prescription N, he cites study after study showing how important nature is to the human psyche at any age. How exposure to nature gives us exactly what we say we want: better concentration, cooperation, creativity, mental clarity, problem-solving, learning, self-esteem. Much better physical and mental health and healing. Stronger family bonds. Being in nature fosters fascination and a sense of belonging to a larger whole. It relaxes the aggressive irritability arising from a time-bound life full of information overload and endless distractions.

Think about how a forest brings alive our senses. Our eyes fill with beauty and wonder, our ears with birdsong and the scolding of squirrels. Breezes sweep over our faces. Beetles alight on and tickle our arms. The roughness of tree trunks and the emerald softness of moss entrance our fingers. Scents of the aromatics that plants exude delight our noses and have calming effects on our brains.

The blessings of being fully immersed, embodied in the body of the planet, are incalculable. Seeing nature out of windows can help hospital patients heal faster and improve high school students’ test scores and behavior. What would our world be like, Louv asks, “if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”

Golden beech leaves in Stony Hill Woods, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford
BEECH: an autumnal beech forest in East Hampton, New York

This question has deep roots. The oldest Homo sapiens fossils found so far are 300,000 years old. Our humanoid kin go even farther back. We spent those years wholly immersed in the natural world. We learned to think, speak, love, work on a verdant planet governed by the seasons, the moon, the weather. By the patterns, songs, and wiles of our fellow animals.

We depended on the intelligence of plant life. Only in the last 10,000 years have we created cities. And only in the last few decades have we become wedded to our screens. As creations of Earth, as mammals and primates with a consciousness born of the green world, we are not designed for the culture we have created. 

We yearn for the lush beauty that formed us but can’t trust our culture to preserve and foster it. In the 1990s Louv was a columnist in San Diego, California. One of the most biodiverse counties in the country, it is also under constant pressure from developers. He asked his readers what attached them to the area. The majority of respondents felt a tenuous connection. They feared the glorious places they longed to know and love might be bulldozed at any moment. They knew, like so many of us, that commercial forces weighed far more heavily on their communities than nature lovers. 

Deep yellow California buttercup (Ranunculus California) along Muddy Hollow Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
BUTTERCUP: California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus)

“We cannot protect something we do not love,” Louv says. “We cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.” And a child cannot come to know and love something he or she has no word for.

Though it has been a few years since I learned about the lost words, I am shocked anew every time I contemplate them. Not only that children are losing access to such words, but that adults think this is acceptable. Our children are our future naturalists, professional and amateur. Passionate birders are the backbone of bird research, ever out there listening, identifying, counting. Are we going to raise a generation of children that don’t even have words for many birds?

Why are playgrounds and school yards asphalt deserts? Why not a miniature forest? We devote 40 million acres in the US alone to needy grass two inches high. We could create ecosystems to welcome birds, insects, animals. Or grow food so that our children connect to Earth’s ability to nourish us physically.

a herd of curious cows in Osceola, MIssouri by Betsey Crawford
PASTURE: curious cows in a roadside pasture in Missouri

This is what Louv calls the renaturing of everyday life. A wonderful task to take on, building community at every level, with newts as well as neighbors. Not to rely solely on the national and state parks and preserves, though they are crucial for the health of the entire globe. E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth Project — saving half the planet for biodiversity — is a goal worth achieving. Such endeavors, though, require action at high levels of government and international cooperation. 

But at a local level, we can preserve, restore, and green every nook and cranny we find. Our yards, road medians, empty lots, walls, sidewalk strips, playgrounds, schoolyards are waiting. We need to lure birds, bees, and caterpillars into our communities. To take back some of the vast swaths of land we have devoted to cars. Open up safe green spaces for both children and acorns.

We can and should involve children in these activities. They will only become environmentalists if they learn to know and love the environment. Nothing is more important for the health and happiness of Earth and all her earthlings than a citizenry devoted to cherishing nature.

Raven in Alaska by Betsey Crawford
RAVEN: hard to imagine not having a word for this magnificent — and raucous — being

(Top photo: ACORN: coast live oak (Quercus agricola) acorn)

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For five years, from age two to seven, I lived in paradise. I roamed woods, ponds, meadows, gardens. That vivid sprite, trailing leaves and flowers and dirt, is still with me. Most children, especially today, are not so blessed. Their loss is tragic for all of us, and for the future of the planet.


The inability to register plants in one’s environment or see the importance of the plant world are two symptoms of plant blindness. The malady is common and dangerous. We won’t save what we don’t see; we can’t cure what we don’t know is afflicting us.


A young man courageously claiming his place in an unwelcoming world as a champion for the environment. A story lit to incandescence by his boundless love for nature and the exquisite prose with which he describes it.

8 thoughts on “The lost words”

  1. This post reminds me of times spent in childhood in whatever natural states we still had in our town. The. patch of woods diagonally across the street, now occupied by house(s) so tedious I can’t remember if there are one or two of them. Or the stream in the field across the dirt road behind HNM (elementary school) that captivated half of us during recess on any given day. The memories of them are much more vivid than any related to whatever playgrounds we used.

    1. I agree. It’s amazing how riveted children are by anything in the natural world, yet have so little access to it.

  2. In addition to these thoughts, I wonder why they even bother with a printed book, which has space restrictions? In the spirit of the digital world, they prioritize, why not keep the nature words and just add the new techy ones, which, as you point out, will have shorter lives than the nature words?

    1. They do keep the nature words in the digital version. I think libraries, and especially school libraries, like the printed books. I assume, for this young age, they are illustrated. I would want them for a young child but they do have space limits and remove words they find are no longer in common use. It’s a reflection of the world we are building for children that these words aren’t in their vocabularies.

  3. So heartbreaking. 😢 How many pages are they saving with the deletion of these words? How could it possibly be worth it?

    But your summation words are always so inspiring. Thank you. 💚

    1. I don’t know how much they save. They trim words every year to bring ones in that are used more frequently. But to take these out is so short-sighted.

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