Monday, 7 November 2016

For the love of glossaries and lost words by Dawn Finch

One of the things that most people don’t know about me is that I love glossaries. I don’t remember when I first fell in love with glossaries, but it must have been when I was a very small person. I have always been thrilled to discover words that are new to me, and I suppose that first started by using glossaries in the school library. One of my oldest friends (hello Janet!) tells me that she remembers when I was about 15 I told her that I was going to learn a new word every day for the rest of my life. Well, I’m hurtling towards 50 now and I’m still doing it.

This means that I really love glossaries. I’ve worked with children’s books for a very long time and I have often based a purchase decision on the quality of the glossary. In fact, writing glossaries was my first paid writing job, and so I have even greater affection for them. I had an arrangement with some educational publishers and they would send me words, and I would write the glossary entry for them.

Now, with my own non-fiction books, I am quietly very proud of my glossaries. It’s not an easy thing to take a complex or abstract concept, and turn it into a simple sentence that can be understood by a child who has probably only just learnt to read. It’s not a full definition, just a clean and simple sentence that allows the child to turn back to the page, apply contextualisation, and understand the word. Writing a good glossary is a bit like a cracking a puzzle backwards.

When I write non-fiction I usually rely on my experience of children’s learning to know roughly where their point of understanding is by the time they reach for my books. For example, I’ve just finished books on stone circles and hill forts and so I know that they will have done work in school on prehistory, archaeology, history etc. They will already know some of the words aurally, and so the words included in the glossary will reinforce their understanding, and introduce new words to their vocabulary. This is an important point; children will have heard the word and then will look for a way to see the word and understand it.

Last year the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled dozens of nature words from their printed volumes. This caused an outcry and many writers and wildlife experts pleaded with the dictionary to put them back in. As a writer and educator I realised that in the future I would come up against children who had never met words like bluebell, buttercup, heron, newt, pasture, fern, conker, lark, nectar, or acorn. Nature words that I have taken for granted, and assumed children did too, could slip through our fingers. Nature writer, Robert MacFarlane wrote a passionate piece for the Guardian and many other experts and nature lovers joined in. Artist Jackie Morris was one of the people justifiably outraged by this and has leant her magical skills to supporting a campaign to never forget these vanishing words. She has teamed up with MacFarlane to write a book about these lost nature words and The Lost Words, a Spell Book will be published by Hamish Hamilton in Spring 2017. I think that this is a wonderful thing and I know it will not only gift those words back to us, but it will be a thing of great beauty.
Jackie Morris' glorious kingfisher - one of the Lost Words

My grandfather was a country man, and when my sister and I were small we were taken on walks and told the names of the things we found. He talked in the language of the countryside and so we learnt scampering along beside him. We learnt of adders and cowslips and mistletoe and kingfishers and willow and cygnets – these words have now also gone from the OJD. We learnt to feel as if we had a place in the Wild and that we understood nature.

My parents were young when they had me and my sister, and there wasn’t much money to spare and so most of our holidays were out in the Wild, camping and running free. We had books from the library about nature, and we had our I-Spy books, and we had them to guide us to a better understanding of nature. Our parents knew we were safe in the countryside because we knew the difference between an adder and a grass snake, and we knew what nightshade looked like, and which mushrooms would kill us, and we understood that dark waters run deep. In short, our understanding of nature allowed us to feel safe in that environment, and our parents felt safe too.

Risk is a funny thing. Risk is the thing that most parents claim stops them from allowing their children to run free, but greater understanding minimises risk. If you understand a thing, you will be less afraid of it, and the risks associated with playing in the countryside are actually very slim. A report from 2015 found that three-quarters of children are spending less time out of doors than prison inmates, and fifth of children do not play outside at all. I have written before about the importance of wild spaces and how playing outside supports creativity and empathy, and so I find this information deeply worrying.

I genuinely dread a time when my glossaries are crammed full of words that I assumed children already knew. I don’t want to arrive in a time when I have to explain words like conker, meadow and willow. I have already anguished over whether or not I need to include the word pasture in a glossary, and that makes me very sad.

My grandfather told us that it was important to know the names of things. He told us tales of faeries that were dark and mischievous and he said that you should hold onto your own name because to name a thing is own a thing. That is what knowing the names of things does – it allows us ownership and lets us feel safe. If we feel safe in the countryside then we feel a greater sense of belonging. If we don’t feel a sense of belonging and ownership then it becomes easier for the Powers That Be to nibble away at our green and wild spaces and take them from us. Losing the names of things is not a small thing, and it’s not simply losing words, ultimately it is the first step to a world under concrete.

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian, and President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and a member of the Society of Authors, Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee (CWIG)

You can follow Jackie Morris’ blog here, and watch as she weaves the spells to make up The Lost Words.


Hilary said...

I'm so glad there is going to be a book of the 'lost words' for children - and hope there will be a copy in every classroom :)

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks so much for highlighting what will be a valuable book, Dawn. When I heard about those dictionary choices, I felt sorrow for those lost words too, and the children who may not ever come across them. Besides, if you don't know the name of a thing, how can you speak about it? Or explain why it is important that it is still there?

Rowena House said...

Unbearable to think these beautiful words are fading away. I fell in love with 'ivy-leaf toadflax' in The Midnight Folk as a child, and hunted it down, and now love that it thrives in my Devon walls, and point it out to friends. Naming things is part of seeing and valuing their uniqueness. Our countryside, our wild places are under such threat. OJD shouldn't be adding to that terrible loss.

Annie Dalton said...

Beautiful poignant piece. I also grew up in the countryside. Books and nature helped me to build my inner world, they were my home where I could be at peace and find myself.

Chrissie Gittins said...
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