From Acorn to Wren: The Lost Words

Spring. A time for new growth and sunshine—albeit through breaks in the rain. Constellations that have been hidden for months reappear in the clear night sky.

Vancouver Island is beginning to bloom and I’m feeling grateful for the lengthening days ahead. For some, the longer days means more hours outside with family, but is this true for all of us?

During the winter holidays I was given the book The Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris and written by Robert Macfarlane. It’s beautifully illustrated, with meticulous wordcraft, large pages, and its inspiration comes from what is becoming lost to us. In 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary—widely used in schools around the world—was published, it was missing around forty common words related to nature. Apparently these words were not being used enough by children to merit their place in the new version of the dictionary. The list of these “lost words” included acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, dandelion, fern, heather, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, raven, willow and wren.

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Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet point, cut and paste, and voicemail. This substitution—the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual—is being seen as a powerful sign of the gulf between childhood and the natural world.

Why does this matter?

In Macfarlane’s words, “a place for literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining.” Unless we have a word for something, we are unable to conceive of it. There is a direct relationship between our imagination, our ability to have ideas about things and our vocabulary.

In response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s (OJD’s) omissions, naturalists, artists, and writers, including Margaret Atwood, illustrator Jackie Morris and wordsmith Robert Macfarlane wrote an open letter to OJD.

“There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing,” the letter said.

To me, this is a wakeup call. For many of us who grew up in an age before smartphones, who spent our weekends wandering unsupervised through parks and neighbourhoods, who use lines like “kids these days” in reference to youth on devices, this mass migration of children moving indoors is painful to watch. But for kids, the price is much higher: a steep rise in health problems, heightened social pressures and a frightening set of new addictions around technology. “Playtime—especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play—is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development,” says Richard Louv, bestselling author of Last Child in the Woods, which links lack of nature to disturbing childhood trends like a rise in depression.

There’s no better time than spring for doing a little cleaning, so why not tidy up our habits? It’s time we helped our children by increasing our own eco-literacy and deepening our nature connections. I encourage you to take the time to unplug and join your children in spending at least five unstructured hours outside a week. Maybe you’ll hike a trail, maybe you’ll run through a grassy field, maybe you’ll go to the beach. Maybe you’ll go on a wilderness vacation, but maybe, and perhaps this is even more essential than a deep wilderness experience, you and your little ones will just sit in the front yard and watch the clouds go by. The goal is to normalize time spent outside, unplugged. It’s time to rewild our children, and make childhood an adventure again.

Kids deserve the chance to explore nature without an agenda or a chaperone, to take risks and learn to get themselves out of trouble, and to fall in love with nature so they become stewards of the earth. Find The Lost Words online or at your local library or bookstore and conjure back what is becoming lost before it slips away forever.

You can download The Lost Words Challenge Cards at

Amira Maddison is an Environmental Educator with Sierra Club BC.

Amira Maddison
Amira Maddison
Amira Maddison is an Environmental Educator with Sierra Club BC.