Monday, 22 July 2019

The Lost Words: Spell Songs

Back in 2007 something happened which those who perpetrated the act thought would go unnoticed. But since then a movement has quietly grown and it appeared in its latest incarnation at the Folk By The Oak festival at Hatfield House.

Early in the afternoon three people appeared on the Acorn Stage. They had no instruments with them and were not about to burst into unaccompanied three-part harmony. On the left was the writer Robert Macfarlane. In the centre, the artist Jackie Morris. And interviewing the pair of them was the broadcaster Matthew Bannister.

Rachel Newton

(just what the Scottish harpist and singer, Rachel Newton, and others who follow have got to do with this will become clear later. Back to the interview...)

The Oxford Junior Dictionary of 2007 made a decision to exclude certain words from its pages to make room for other words which they deemed more relevant to today's children.
The missing words included "dandelion", "acorn", "bluebell" and "otter", all words to do with the natural world, left out in favour of words to do with the internet and computers.

Kris Drever

The loss of the words from the dictionary was of course not the fault of the publishers; they merely reflect what's going on in the world. But if children do not know the names of these things how will they know how important it is to protect them?

Julie Fowlis

I can't recall the exact details of how it came about but the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane and wildlife artist Jackie Morris came together to produce the book "The Lost Words" to celebrate the beauty and mystery of the very words left out of the dictionary.

Beth Porter

Each double page contains one of Robert's "spells", illustrated by Jackie's painting. The word "spell" here has two meanings: firstly the initial letter of each line spells out the name of the subject - O T T E R for example, but the words also conjure up a vision of the animal - like a witch's spell. There is absolutely no "talking down" to children - more like the words of Dylan Thomas than Enid Blyton!

Seckou Keita

Every year Folk By The Oak brings musicians and singers together to produce a suite of new songs on a theme, and these are presented as the central set of the afternoon's music. And this year the songs were based on the Lost Words. And the musicians pictured here are the ones who collaborated in the project.

Karine Polwart

The book itself has been the subject of a crowd-funded scheme to introduce it into every primary school in England. And recently a CD of the songs has also become available.

Somehow I didn't get a picture of Jim Molyneux apart from where he sneaks into the left-hand edge of the band shot above. Kerry Andrew, who was also part of the group, was not at the event but does appear on the CD. So here they are, The Lost Words book and CD, floating ethereally above the festival site surrounded by a golden glow....

There's lots online about the project for those who are interested:

Take care.


  1. The decision to leave those words out of the dictionary is about the dumbest thing I can imagine.

  2. What a lovely idea that shouldn't need to be enacted. If you get what I mean

  3. If they have to remove words, it seems to me there is probably a lot more obscure words that could be left out over "dandelion", "acorn", "bluebell" and "otter". Neat concept, I hope they reach their crowdfunding goal.

  4. The decision about which words to omit was interesting and wrong in my opinion.

  5. You have to wonder why they thought those words should be left out I think it is stupid they did a bit liek the person who came up with the idea of removeing them

  6. I've been following this project through the artist Jackie Morris' blog that she posts every once in a while, as well as some of her beautiful art. It's been a great idea and seems to be supported by many people who've bought books and paintings, and had fund raisers.

  7. I do wonder how they decided to leave those words out...but what some fine music/songs to come from it!

    Oh, thank you for finding out what that the name of my yellow flower was Partridge pea

  8. Added to my Amazon cart. I shall go broke buying books, but it will be a happy poverty.

  9. I have no understanding of why the Oxford University Junior Dictionary are leaving out these words - they will never be lost to me - they all conjure up images that I love and enjoy. They can keep their computer/internet words which leave me totally cold.

    1. We're not on very solid ground here - one of the new words was "blog"! :)

  10. I love the effort of these artists and musicians. What a great way to keep these words in the dictionary of our minds. I can't believe they got rid of the word otter.

  11. Hi John - I hadn't heard of this collaboration ... but what a delight to know about - amazing and I'm so pleased you went over to listen to these amazing folks. I too have ordered the book and CD ... I wrote about the dictionary and the loss of words back in 2015 ... but this sounds an amazingly creative way to get the word out. Thanks so much for posting about it ... and I'll do a post at some stage and refer back here - wonderful read. Cheers Hilary

    PS - they did put blog in ... perhaps they'll get some young bloggers?!

  12. What a great idea. It's a fantastic book.

  13. I am so interested in your post, - I have just finished reading Robert McFarlane's "Underland" and found it fascinating, as I am sure "Lost Words" must be too, - thank goodness for Amazon for those of us who live far from book stores. I will order the book, and not read just the reviews!


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