Sun streamed in through the windows of my mother’s flat, up above The Broadway in Thorpe Bay, England. To the right, too far for us to see but close enough to be felt, was the sea, and to the left, the train station that took so many commuters on a route paralleling the Thames River, up to London. We make a habit of walking along the seafront, my husband and I, when we’re back visiting my mother, but the beauty of the day made me think I didn’t want to limit our time outside to just an hour along the seafront. It was the kind of day when it would be good to be in the trees. Catch the sunlight filtering through the branches in airy beams. And give my husband’s knees a break by letting him walk on soil instead of pavement.
“Do you want to go to Hockley Woods?” I asked him.
“Okay, let’s go.”
A bus ride later – a blue, double-decker no less, where we sat upstairs, at the front, with a little bit of a queasy view of all the harrowing squeeze-pasts this dieseling behemoth had to make on the narrow, curvy, two lane country roads – we were in the woods, away from the sounds of traffic, encountering only occasional walkers, like us, most of them out with their dogs.
We stretched out, the ground muddy in places under our feet, the sky a heavenly lavender blue where we could see it. Hockley Woods is what they call a “coppicing” woods, where the trees are felled in one area and the stumps left to encourage new growth. We took photos of the burly oaks, examined the seeds from the sweet chestnut trees and looked at piles of newly felled hornbeams, wondering if they’d get sold for wood.
At the end of our walk, while my husband chatted with an amiable Essex forester who started every sentence with “truth be told,” I stared at the sign detailing Hockley Woods. And lost myself in the language of it. Words like foxglove and broom, butchers broom and dog mercury made me want to stand there forever, reading them again and again, hoping to imprint their beauty on my mind. Cow wheat, willow herbs and Heath Fritillary butterfly; how could anyone not love such language?
Maybe this was just me being nostalgic for the words of my childhood but I think not. I think words are my thing, in the same way that fabric is my older sister’s thing. I remember being dragged into fabric shops by her as a teenager and standing, waiting for what seemed like endless amounts of time as she pondered the different materials, asking myself in that sullen, teenage way, why she had to touch every, single one. Now I get it. I think one of the best things about being a writer is having to go through the mental archives of vocabulary looking for just the right word. Or, even better, looking for different words to say the same thing.
I walked away from my husband and on to another sign, where I read words like pedunculate oak, paper birch, hazel, sessile oak. It didn’t matter that some of the words were unfamiliar to me; I could always look them up, I thought. Or could I? According to Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane, a fascinating book about the different words we have to describe our landscape, the following words are among those that have now been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary:
“acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).
They were dropped so they could be replaced with – are you ready? – words including:
“attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).
I’ve asked myself about this many times since I read it, thinking how sad that we’re moving so far from the natural world, that the Oxford Junior Dictionary doesn’t think children need to look those words up anymore. It’s true that the second group of words is more reflective of the things they run into contact with everyday but, as a friend mentioned to me at one of my book events, when I shared the above with the audience, the children she deals with in schools already know the meaning of words like broadband, voice-mail and chatroom. In fact, they probably already know the meaning of all the words in the replacement group. But what are they going to do when they’re introduced to Shakespeare and can’t look up the meaning of the word cygnet? Or lark, for goodness sake? What if they read The Wind in the Willows and wonder what is this creature called otter? Or are we to assume that the words in those texts will be replaced with more modern, more “relevant” terms.
“It was the nightingale, and not the MP3 player,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”
My husband sidled over to me and interrupted my memorization of the sign. “You want to see what they have to eat at that pub we passed?” he said to me.
“Sure,” I answered, ready for some lunch.
We walked, single file, along the narrow band of pavement that curved up the hill from Hockley Woods, a steady stream of cars whizzing past inches from our shoulders and hips. I wondered, as we walked, whether I would linger in front of a sign that was littered with words like broadband and chatroom and bullet-point? Probably not, I thought. They’re just not as prosaic as nature words. Or do I have that the wrong way round? Is it that nature is more prosaic than technology so the words used to describe it are more evocative? Maybe if we gave our documents and devices prettier names, I’d find them more appealing. But, then again, a cell phone by any other name would still be a cell phone.