The natural art of Lost Words

MANY people know The Lost Words, the remarkable book of paintings, poems and words naming everyday wildlife and plants, by painter Jackie Morris and environmentalist, poet and writer Robert MacFarlane. The book is so popular that it has been supplied to many primary schools across the country – often by crowd-funding – and is also a valuable resource in nursing homes and dementia care facilities.

Perhaps not everyone knows that the book is a response to the publication of an updated Oxford Junior English Dictionary whose compilers took the decision to exclude 50 words from the natural world in favour of hi-tech or currently trendy words and phrases which would be familiar to the seven year olds for whom the dictionary is intended..

So words like acorn, bluebell, buttercup, conker, chestnut, kingfisher and minnow have been replaced with analogue, broadband, blog, celebrity, chatroom, and cut and paste. Other words taken out include hamster, heron, herring, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster and panther.

The objection to the exclusions and new entries is simple – anything that diminishes our children’s grasp of the world around them is to be regretted and must be opposed. Morris and MacFarlane, whose book is a beautiful, joyous thing, are supported by many of today’s leading writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and Andrew Motion.

These authors were among 28 writers who signed a letter ro Oxford University Press protesting at the loss of words, which began with the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary and has continued (and you might say made much worse) in the 2012 edition.

The letter says: “We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However, it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered.”

A spokesman for OUP explained that all the publishing house’s dictionaries are designed to “reflect language as it is used.”  The statement said that OUP was rigorous in deciding which words could be included in each dictionary, “acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age … and taking curriculum requirements into account.”

There are around 400 words related to nature in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, including badger, bird, caterpillar, daffodil, feather, hedgehog, invertebrate, ladybird, ocean, python, sunflower, tadpole, vegetation and zebra. Many words that are not in the OJD are included in the Oxford Primary Dictionary, aimed at pupils up to age 11. If you are interested in reading more of OUP’s response, see the blog post at

The law of unintended consequences being what it is, The Lost Words has become a huge hit across the country and is inspiring projects to get children learning about the natural world, and to recognise everyday birds, insects, animals and wildflowers that they see around them. And it’s not just for those of us lucky enough to live in the countryside – many of the wild things whose names have been dropped from the OJD can be seen in parks, along rivers, around lakes and ponds and in gardens in urban areas. You don’t have to walk far or look very carefully to see magpies, conkers, herons, buttercups, bluebells or starlings. You might have to look a little harder, stay quieter for longer, but you could also see an otter or a kingfisher.

If you live in Dorset, The Lost Words is the theme for this year’s summer programme of workshops and activities for children, organised by the rural touring arts charity, Artsreach. We have a taster of what’s on offer on our children’s pages –

For the full programme please visit the Artsreach website

And if you don’t live in Dorset (or even if you do), we urge you to visit your local bookshop and buy The Lost Words. It’s beautiful, inspiring and huge fun for children who will love the pictures, the poems and the jumbles of letters they can sort into words. It is also a timely reminder that the natural world is at risk, but is essential to our wellbeing (a currently over-used word that seems to be mainly about spending money on “fitness” or personal trainers or “free-from” foods).

Buy the book. It will do you more good.

Fanny Charles