A Lament For Lost Words

words omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary

words omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary

I was very distressed to read that The Oxford Junior Dictionary had been ‘culling’ words concerning nature’, words like catkin, acorn, cowslip, otter meadow, in order to make room for words like broadband, chatroom, and celebrity. Reading the list of deletions in alphabetical order, as they are presented in the image above, which I first saw taken from Simon Kings wildlife page, I felt there was a poem waiting to be uttered just in the sheer listing, and lost sounds, in these lovely names, so I set them, as they were, and in their order, in this lament.

I have since discovered the source of the list in the image above in an excellent article by Robert McFarlane, who is doing so much to restore the richness and texture of our language and to celebrate our wild places.

As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

To graceful names and lovely woods farewell
To acorn, adder, ash, to beech and bluebell,
Farewell old friends I name you in my sonnet
Buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet
Farewell, your fields are brick, our books are barren
No dandelion or fern, hazel or heron
We’ll go no more alone, no more together
The mountain thyme is gone and gone the heather
The clinging ivy‘s gone and soon to go
The kingfisher‘s blue bolt, the mistletoe
Nectar, newt, and otter, pasture, willow
To their last rites my muse comes footing slow
We’ll hear no more the heaven-scaling lark
We’ll all go down together in the dark.


Filed under Current affairs, imagination, Poems

32 responses to “A Lament For Lost Words

  1. Viv

    This is heart breaking.

  2. Julie Kilburn

    It is up to all of us lucky enough to remember a time when these words were a part of our language to ensure our children and grandchildren don’t lose touch with the natural world. Take them out, camp, build dens, have nature walks, identify trees and flowers and fruits and birds, fly kites, walk dogs, paddle, sail, fish, lie on your back at the top of a hill listening to the larks or take a book into the boughs of a great tree. These lovely things are still there despite the ‘progress’ mirrored in the nouns that now replace them. We can’t halt progress. We can’t change the world. But we can influence those we come across in the way we spend our time with young people, the gifts we buy and the values we choose to pass on. Keep these words alive in what you do. They’re depending on us and we should not despair.

    • I do like this feisty response. How important it is to teach our children and grandchildren to connect with nature. Those beautiful words will not die if we do. Hopefully!

  3. Very sad that the kids using their junior dictionary won’t get such lovely words and images. They better keep them in the “grown up” dictionary!

  4. Tracy WB

    This is so profoundly sad. This primary teacher objects.

  5. Oh Malcolm, This is painfully beautiful. I feel the loss in communication every day. At least once a week my husband or girls will tell me as I recount a story out loud, “No one uses that word anymore!” I grew up like an Annie Dillard in the lovely Virginia valley between the Blue Ridge. The words of nature are particularly dear to me.

  6. No need for “willow”? Good grief: what does the OUP think they make bats out of nowadays? Carbon-fibre?

  7. I grew up with a garden that backed onto a National Trust estate, full of woods, paths and caves. I watched (rather enviously) as my neighbours tore about the field on ponies. I devoured horse books and savoured the adventures and companionship you could have with an equine companion. I went to London, forgot about fields and hooves and flying manes, until one day when I saw a person in jodhpurs on the Tube. I was mesmerised. 25 years have passed and although I still live in the Big Smoke, I have had horses in my life every day. Riding a horse amplifies your senses – the changed shape of a puddle from one day to the next, the shadow of a cloud passing across a hill, the scent of spring or the emerging buds on a tree. They hear what you cannot – the rustle of small creatures in the hedgerow, the faraway shout of a lone dog-walker. These simple things tell you that you’re alive – and these are what I want words for. Not for celebrity, or MP3.

  8. Oh – I meant to say thank you for this post, Malcolm! Got carried away there.

  9. This is very disturbing. I had no idea this was happening.

  10. sara rice

    take heart, my cherished word-cherishing friends. Our children and we ourselves are on -and on and on- tablets and I-phones and whatever will come next. and here, there is space for words, old, new, and those to come! Surely our publishing treasure troves are securing old and new words on-line also (I could Google it and find out!). My preference always is for pages between my fingers. Yet, book bindings are finite. Lets act to insure our children’s schools and homes are eqipped and on-line–and that we adventure with our kids and grands to speak and experience these beloved words! ‘Buttercups’ forever!

  11. This is touching a chord with many – myself included. A great response, Malcolm

  12. Soon they’ll dispense with necessary words like “air”
    Or “breath” or “wind”. Let us respond, “Not fair.
    Such deprivation leaves us in despair.”

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  14. What miserable kind of childhood doesn’t have dandelions but does have committees?

  15. Ok

    Sent from my iPhone so please excuse spelling errors.


  16. Poem worthy of Betjemen! And as melancholy. God what is the OUP coming to? Enough to slit throat today.

  17. Tracy WB

    ooo- of course! The children won’t actually be needing an Oxford Junior Dictionary…they have access to a world of words that I could only have dreamed of as a child with a 4 library book a week allowance.

  18. Ahhh, the dumbing-down of childrens’ things … like children’s restaurant menus that only include hot dogs, pizza, chicken fingers and the like. Youth doesn’t have to be a wasted resource.

  19. Hi Malcolm, my earlier reply to this blog post got sent before i had finished it…

    The second try:

    Hi Malcolm,

    Although brief, this post is very interesting to me in that, I believe as we lose words, we loose the ability to think clearly. When lacking words to define a word or an object or an idea idea we essentially lose the ability to communicate clearly. This is most concerning to me as this will hinder our ability to share about Jesus, the Word made flesh. I don’t feel we should just give in and not use words just because a certain dictionary has creased to include them. There must be a fight; the fight is won by using the very words meant to be eliminated.

    Here is a poem I quickly wrote as an additional response to this topic.

           On the elimination of words…

    Some things are lost because we let them go,

    Some things are lost because we do not know

    The gain it would bring-

    If we were listening.

    The taste it would bring-

    If we were savoring.

    Hold on to the treasure,

    It will be yours to keep.

    Let others discard,

    It will be yours for free.

    An unnamed child has no home,

    An unknown bird’s beauty a drone.

    Articulate a thought,

    Capture a soul.

    Define the Word,

    Make the man whole.

    Thanks for all of your work,

    Chris Sperling


    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    From:”Malcolm Guite” Date:Tue, Mar 3, 2015 at 12:33 Subject:[New post] A Lament For Lost Words

    malcolmguite posted: ” I was very distressed to read that The Oxford Junior Dictionary had been ‘culling’ words concerning nature’, words like catkin, acorn, cowslip, otter meadow, in order to make room for words like broadband, chatroom, and celebrity. Reading the list of “

  20. Oh please, NO! I do hope this is not true. If so, I’m pleased I don’t write for them… so many beautiful words.

  21. kvmagruder

    I do so love this poem, and discerned (what I hope is) an echo of Yeats’ Isle of Innisfree: “my muse comes footing slow” (“peace comes dropping slow”). Yeats evoked an “evening full of the linnet’s wings” not that far different from “The kingfisher‘s blue bolt” and “the heaven-scaling lark.” Isle of Innisfree has been one of my favorite poems since childhood. Thank you for calling it to my mind again in the midst of your protest-lamentation. Peace, Kerry

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Kerry. Yes the Yeats is there but also Milton from his elegy Lycidas in which one of the mourners is the river cam ( on whose banks I walk every day) ‘next came reverend Camus footing slow’. ‘The kingfisher’s blue bolt’ is Seamus Heaney from ‘a new song’ ‘the kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk’

      • kvmagruder

        Dear Malcolm, thank you for these allusions; I can’t wait to read both poems. I love the reference to the Cam, which I walked also at a conference a few years back. I had only limited time on Sunday, but managed to make a service at St. Edwards, which began with one of your poems. I was deeply moved. More than that, I was just off of corneal surgeries and so, at the conclusion of the service when invited to ask for healing prayers, you placed your hand on me and prayed for my eyes (of the forehead and of the heart). Thank you, dear brother. Your ministry through Word and words has been a constant river footing slow with refreshment, flowing far from the Cam, all the way here in Oklahoma. Peace, Kerry

  22. Deirdre Bryant

    All those stultifying words pushing out words of life and beauty…..thank God for our teachers and Forest schools, grandparents and carers with time to look at and engage with the world with their young charges. Keep remembering, talking, reading, looking and seeing, and all will be well.

    Thank you again, Malcolm, for your thought-provoking words.

  23. Thank you for drawing my attention to this, as we now have schools with no singing this to me seems like another nail in the coffin of our rich tapestry of language.

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