By Horatio Clare For The Daily Mail
Published: 19:22 EDT, 2 August 2019 | Updated: 19:57 EDT, 2 August 2019
Among my first words, apparently, were ‘Jack’ and ‘tractor’. Jack was the farmer who taught my parents the secrets of hill-farming, and what country boy does not love the sound, the sight, the magnificence of tractors?
The vocabulary of our life on the sheep-covered Black Mountains of South Wales was a glossary of wonder and intrigue to me.
Our year was a turning calendar of haymaking, shearing, dipping, tupping and lambing. Each word was spoken in a way that invoked its work in barns and yards and the open air.
As technology multiplies, Nature retreats. Yet the knock-on effect has been a stirring of affection for words long-forgotten. A Carmarthenshire landscape in Wales is pictured above
In those words remain the sweet smell of dusk in the meadows, tractors to haul the hay; the chatter of shearing machines, fleeces peeling off the ewes in creamy waves and the reek of lanolin, rivers of animals belling in the lane on the way to being dipped — a country childhood locks sensations in language.
I cannot remember a time when I did not know what a buzzard was, or an oak tree, or a wren. Inside these words are the wheel of the hawk’s wings, the spread of branches waxy green with clustered leaves, and the cock-tailed darting of the tiny bird.
It was reported this week that words we used to use to describe nature now speak instead of technology.
When did you last use ‘tweet’ to describe birdsong, ‘web’ to mean a spider’s creation, ‘stream’ to mean running water and ‘cloud’ to mean vapour overhead?
According to a study by the University of Leeds, which looked at datasets of informal conversations, all mentions of the word ‘tweet’ in the Nineties referred to birdsong, while one in 100 do now.
We need not despair that, in future, our children will think of a remote data-storage system when they hear the word ‘cloud’. But we should offset it by teaching them the names of clouds [File photo]
Seven in ten uses of ‘web’ in the same period referred to spiders: this has become one in ten.
‘Field’, ‘fibre’, ‘cloud’, ‘branch’ and ‘net’ have all changed meanings, too, co-opted for commercial or technological ends.
This is the living mutability of language, the way it shifts to keep tight its embrace with the world. But there is an edge of loss to this change.
Now, the speaker is not contemplating a sky or the running twists of water, the slender might of a spider’s web, or pasture, trees or the music of birds. He or she refers to a ‘virtual’ world, conjured in pixels.
What the tech firms call ‘disruption’, when they destroy old trading networks, is one of the forces of our time. Populist politicians disrupt electoral tribes; the Leeds study shows that technology disrupting language itself.
To children now, they will still be clouds, but the word will also and increasingly mean data somewhere in someone else’s charge, part of the world of computers where power belongs not to Nature, God or the unknowable, but to a technological elite. A Surrey landscape is pictured above [File photo]
In so doing, we have lost a little of what connected us to our ancestors and their way of life.
Take ‘cloud’. It comes from the Old English ‘clut’, meaning a mass of rock or earth, a hill, possibly related to ‘clod’. This seems magical. Our forbears looked at the puffy heaps of cumulonimbus sailing through the blue and saw them as massy hills in the sky.
Heavy grey rain skies are also caught in ‘clut’ or ‘clod’, rock-heavy, water-bearing strata.
To children now, they will still be clouds, but the word will also and increasingly mean data somewhere in someone else’s charge, part of the world of computers where power belongs not to Nature, God or the unknowable, but to a technological elite.
In this transfer of meanings, lines of beauty and history are disrupted.
We have the most beautiful words for weathers, such as zephyr, from the Greek Zefyros, meaning the west wind, which came to us with the Romans and the Latin ‘zephyrus’.
‘Breeze’ seems onomatopoeic, a word carrying cool motion, but it is from the Old Spanish ‘briza’, a cold north-east wind, brought here as a nautical term by sailors in the 1560s.
Many of those words that describe the natural world come from the northern family of languages with which we share our climate, flora and fauna.
Compare the number of British children who know Peppa Pig to the number of those who have met a real pig. The screen wins again. No wonder Nature and the words that describe it are slipping from sight and mind [File photo]
‘Thunder’, one of the great conjuring words of childhood, has common roots in old Norse, proto-Germanic and old Friesian, formerly spoken on Germany’s North Sea coast.
The beauty of a word — the pleasure we take in using it — is a harmony of sound, sense, rhythm and all the suggestions around it, the echoes and shadows with which poets work.
In ‘thunder’, we hear gods rolling rocks, we feel the rumble and detonation, but we may also see dark skies, rain-light dimming to purple-green, and in the crack between the syllables, flashes of lightning.
Going back further, we find the fundamentals of landscape and language together in crag, cwm and coombe — Celtic words with similar meanings in Welsh and Cornish.
‘Safn’ in Welsh, meaning mouth, is the Cornish ‘sawan’, meaning chasm, and both stand at the root of ‘zawn’, one of the most dazzlingly pleasing English words: a deep narrow inlet of the sea. And don’t zawns look like the foaming mouths of cliffs?
Puffin comes from the puffy fatness of Manx shearwater chicks, a different species. But the absurd bird with the comical bill could now only be a puffin
Where Nature and the poetry of words most perfectly collide, a beauty is born. This goes beyond the merely aesthetic into a region of almost musical harmony and the deep interconnectedness of things.
I was delighted this week to learn that a baby puffin is a ‘puffling’.
Puffin comes from the puffy fatness of Manx shearwater chicks, a different species. But the absurd bird with the comical bill could now only be a puffin.
In May, swifts come soaring, out of the breeze. No wonder poets love birds. A kingfisher was once a ‘halcyon’, which we now take to mean a golden period in history. It is from the Greek ‘halkuon’, from ‘hals’ — sea — and ‘kuon’, conceiving.
Thus this bird of rivers carries the colour of the sea on its back, and halycon days are connected to heavenly days of the sea and summer.
In this time of disruption, it is natural that words should change their meanings and associations, and that this should cause anxiety.
As technology multiplies, Nature retreats. Yet the knock-on effect has been a stirring of affection for words long-forgotten.
One of the publishing sensations of recent times is The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris, which devotes poems and artworks to natural words, from ‘acorn’ to ‘wren’, that have fallen into disuse among today’s children.
Petrichor: The smell of the rain on dry ground, a 1960s coinage from petro (relating to rocks) and ichor, the Greek for the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.
Sillion: The shiny soil turned by a plough, from the French ‘sillon’ for furrow; revived by Gerard Manley Hopkins for his poem The Windhover.
Fallow: From proto-Germanic ‘falgo’: ploughed up fallow land.
Eyrie: A large nest of a bird of prey, a lovely corruption of the Latin ‘area’ meaning flat ground, via Old French ‘aire’.
Stamen: Direct from the Latin for a warp in a thread, referring to a plant’s pollen-producing organ.
Mist: From the Sanskrit ‘mih’ for fog or mist, a word that seems to trail skirts of vapour.
Drizzle: From the Old English ‘dreosan’, to fall, perfectly descriptive in sound and sense.
twilight: The most beautiful time of day. The word, meaning half-light, is from Old English.
Thrift: The bright pink flower of the clifftops which seems to thrive by making the most of salty air and thin soil. Takes its name from the Old Norse for prosperity.
Community-driven fundraising has taken the book into schools, hospitals and hospices across the country, testament to an agonised adult desire to ensure that Britain’s young should not lose connection with the land.
The book is part of the writer’s ongoing campaign to discover, champion and restore lost and little-known words from nature and agriculture.
His book, Landmarks, is a series of glossaries for landscapes, drawn from poetry, history and the languages of the British Isles.
The majority of the words included have either disappeared or are known only to tiny populations.
They sing with beauty and accuracy, for example, ‘ungiving’, meaning a thaw, ‘shadowtackle’ (the pattern of light and shade in a wood); ‘summer geese’, which is steam rising from a warm wet moor, ‘ammil’, the fiery light produced by sun on hoar frost and ‘verglas’, which is blue ice on rock.
We seem to be standing at a junction between what Macfarlane calls ‘wonder and loss’. Though the remedies are straightforward, they are not simply achieved.
Of course, we need to plant trees and cut the use of pesticides and fertilisers. And we should take children into Nature. For city dwellers, bringing children into the country and showing them what is there may not be easy or cheap.
Even children growing up in provincial towns may struggle to hear an owl hoot, though owls are a great part of the literary and cultural landscape of childhood.
Our house is full of spiders, but when my son asked me this week if it was true that spider webs were stronger than steel, I suspected the question came from watching Spiderman, rather than arachnids.
Compare the number of British children who know Peppa Pig to the number of those who have met a real pig. The screen wins again. No wonder Nature and the words that describe it are slipping from sight and mind.
All is not lost, though. Take the animals and birds out of childhood and you have few cuddly toys or books left. It is not difficult to show a child an oak, acorn, magpie or even a peregrine, as these tremendous falcons are moving back into cities.
What is more likely to be lost, and what writers and readers are working to preserve, are the languages of engagement with Nature, the working words that, before industrialised agriculture, connected us to the earth.
In his poem Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in glittering praise of ‘Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings / Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.’
In my childhood, the words for the tools and practices of farming might have come straight from a spellbook. The crowbar was 4.5ft of thunderous iron with which Farmer Jack would drill by hand a cone into the red earth, for stakes and fencing.
The word dates from the 1400s, deriving from the tool’s hooked end, which resembles a crow’s beak. Then he set about the stake with the sledgehammer.
I had no idea the term came from the Anglo-Saxon ‘slaegan’, meaning to strike violently, but its weight and potency seemed perfectly caught in its name.
When the farmer whose fields our house overlooks cut his hay recently, I delightedly showed our boy the ‘woofling’.
It was reported this week that words we used to use to describe nature now speak instead of technology. When did you last use ‘tweet’ to describe birdsong, ‘web’ to mean a spider’s creation, ‘stream’ to mean running water and ‘cloud’ to mean vapour overhead? [File photo]
This is when two spiked spinning wheels behind the tractor gather and spin and dry — or woofle — the hay, leaving it in shaggy files for the baler.
I explained out of joy at the sound and sight, out of nostalgia, and because we need to know how food comes to us. In losing language, we also lose sight and command of the process, and end up eating tasteless food filled with chemicals.
No wonder writing that champions the language of Nature has been finding eager readers for more than a decade.
The success of books about fields, sheep-farming, mountains, badgers, wrens, smallholdings and re-wilding is not a sign of nostalgia, but the music of a battle to retain connection to what is real, beautiful and true.
We need not despair that, in future, our children will think of a remote data-storage system when they hear the word ‘cloud’.
But we should offset it by teaching them the names of clouds.
Cirrus, or mares’ tails, which mean fine weather; cirrocumulus, or mackerel skies, which I was taught mean a change of the weather; cumulonimbus, or thunderheads.
What magic, what power and what a soaring exchange between people, language and the world there are in these beautiful words, in these words for seeing beauty.
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