This sumptuously illustrated book is a celebration of words from the natural world that were omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2015 in favour of technical terms such as broadband. It offers poems or nature-summoning “spells”, each an acrostic of words such as adder, heather, heron etc, that explore the subject’s characteristics and are indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins with their rich alliteration, wordplay and compound adjectives: “Gold-flare, wing-fan, whipcrack the kingfisher.”
The Lost Words makes no mention of the dictionary and Macfarlane deftly insults the OJD with a taste of its own medicine by ignoring it. Instead, in a book of spells rather than poems, exquisitely illustrated by Morris, Macfarlane gently, firmly and meticulously restores the missing words. Acorn, blackberry, bluebell, conker and “perhaps the one that cut the deepest” for Morris, “kingfisher”, are lovingly returned to future generations of children... The Lost Words is a beautiful book and, in terms of ideas, an important one. I once asked a magician what he considered to be the defining characteristic of his art. “Directing the gaze”, he said. Re-enchantment, re-engagement and conservation of the natural world is ultimately only going to be possible if we retain the language with which to make it happen.
In 2015, a published version of the first chapter in Robert Macfarlane’s last book, Landmarks, went viral. In it, the nature writer and academic talked about the deep, historic connections between language and landscape and mourned the loss of certain everyday words from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Acorn, bluebell, conker: all had been omitted.... His wonderful new poetry book for children, The Lost Words, is Macfarlane’s response to this vanishing language. It’s a collection of acrostic spell-poems, beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, each one devoted to a word removed from the OJD.