Another Extinction: Words We Use to Describe the Natural World

Languages are like species—they evolve, and sometimes evolution leads to extinction. At present we are enduring numerous extinctions, not just of species and subspecies, but extinctions of whole languages and vocabularies. We may be willing to lose, say, the vocabularies of blacksmithing, but many of us are not willing to lose our vocabularies describing nature. Recently, various writers have become alarmed and decided to fight back. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks is the latest addition to this literature, though many of his assumptions rest solidly on his precursors.

John R. Stilgoe’s modest 1996 book Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English is one. Stilgoe, a Harvard professor of the history of landscape, instructs the reader in the subtle distinctions of creek, brook, rill, and stream; gutter (not the kinds perched at the edge of roofs), bore (not the ones at parties), and guzzle (not what you do with beer). It is a learned and elegant read. As Stilgoe says, it is a “sort of salvage operation of words drifting from dictionary language.” Words, left unused, eventually are forgotten. Even in the short timespan of a single generation, an unremembered vocabulary impacts what we see, what we pay attention to, and what we know.

Read more: Yes! Magazine

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