Why we need to keep the words for the wild things and where they are

Posted on 23.10.2017

In the early ’60s, when John McLean was a kid, he’d squeeze between his Dad and one of his Dad’s mates, sharing the bench seat of a vintage petrol truck, no doors, no belts, the cabin cloudy with V8 fumes. “It had mangy, faded blue paint. It groaned and rattled, and I loved every inch of the journey, to and from the paddocks.”

They chugged around Junee and Illabo, the hills of Bethungra, chopping and collecting fallen grey box for winter stoves. “We had axes, wedges, pinch bars and a large two-man saw with fearsome teeth,” writes John, recalling his days of woodcarting.

As that was the ritual’s name, the word strong enough to evoke the cow-tracked hills of John’s boyhood, the saw-song, the timber perfume, the draught and pong of the truck. Other readers had other labels for firewood-fetching, as I soon discovered. These included chumping (from Don, ex-Yorkshire) and sticking (Colin, ex-Leicester).

Older still is estovers, a term salvaged from the Magna Carta by Cris Brack, an associate professor of forest management at ANU. Along with pannage (the right to pasture free-range pigs) and turbary (the licence to harvest peat), a tenant farmer of 1215 could boast estovers – the right to cut and gather timber for fuel and repairs. The word derives from estovoir in Old French, “to be necessary”.

Necessity, in fact, was one defence bandied by the Oxford Junior Dictionary, two years ago. The issue related to words such as acorn, beech and willow being chopped from the dictionary’s earlier edition, supplanted by the likes of hashtag, broadband and chat room.

Nectar bit the dust for Blackberry. Pasture lost the fight to bullet point. By way of argument, the editors said, “All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages”. For the Junior edition, this included “acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children”.

In concert with this stance comes a recent report by Britain’s National Trust. Tabled in 2012, the Natural Childhood paper cites ample proof of kids losing touch with mud and trees. Screens are usurping streams, the average roaming-radius of childhood shrinking from John’s Illabo hills to virtual house arrest. Consequently, three out of 10 British kids failed to name a magpie, compared with 90 per cent who knew a Dalek.

Word hoarder and landscape lauder Robert Macfarlane believes, “Technology is miraculous, but so too is nature – and this aspect of the world’s wonder seems under threat of erasure in children’s narratives, dreams and plots.”

To appreciate what wild words are dwindling across wider English, I recommend Macfarlane’s earthly epic, Landmarks. This is a volume to eavesdrop skreever (a howling Orkney gale), to spelunk fogou (a Cornish cave), or slog across clogsum (the sticky clods of Suffolk). Larger than the lunkie (a sheep-sized aperture within a hedge), our modern vocabs have become so porous that entire word herds have fled their confines.

Closer to home, away from hares and hedges, we have pandaRa in central Victoria, the Djadjawurrung word for a cup made of bulrushes, or bayarrh up near Dubbo, the Kamilaroi name for green-headed ants – or even a word such as woodcarting, a fugitive term once heard down Junee way. Either we resurrect the fallen language or risk losing touch with the world beyond our windows.

As English author Tim Dee puts it,

“Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.”

Let that thought fuel our own fires.

Let’s safeguard the spells that keep us earthed.



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