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Naming the World

My nephew, Percy, recently turned two, and his two-year-old brain is at present busy constructing and connecting an entire world of language. From the occasion of his first utterance—Cheers, which he said with a jovial grin while tapping his milk cup against each of our glasses—I’ve been riveted to his expanding vocabulary. He is learning to name the world. The task will be lifelong.

The Oxford Junior Dictionary made waves when a group of sleuthing readers realized that around fifty words had been eliminated from its pages over the past few editions. Of the lost words—among them, acorn, heron, buttercup, lark, oyster, and magpie—the majority belong to the natural world. The missing words’ replacements—among them, chatroom, blog, voicemail, and broadband—seem an insidious sign of the increasing technological maelstrom threatening both childhood and species-hood.

The problem is not that children will never learn the names or characteristics of the missing flora and fauna. The Oxford Junior Dictionary contains only one-fifteenth of the words of its adult counterpart, The Oxford Dictionary of English. And let’s face it, dictionaries themselves are, in our digital age, far more obsolete than any of the words they unlisted. The plants and animals that are no longer found in the pages of this children’s dictionary still exist in the world, and they face a greater threat from the changing climate than from a book for seven-year-olds.

But the lost words are emblematic of the broader threat of losing our sense of connection, not only to these words but to what they embody. As a litany of authors—among them, Margaret Atwood and Robert McFarlane—wrote in an open letter to Oxford University Press, “Will the removal of these words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary ruin lives? Probably not. But as a symptom of a widely acknowledged problem that is ruining lives, this omission becomes a major issue.” The plea in their letter to reintroduce the missing words is not just for the publisher—it’s for all of us. A plea to broaden, not narrow, the horizons of the world that children stand to inherit. With language, with music, with art, with science—with all of the ways of engaging intimately with our environment.

One of Percy’s earliest words is tree. Tree belongs to everything tall, barked, branched, and leafed. When we walk through the park, Percy places his small palm against the trunk of every tree we pass and he says the word—tree. There’s reverence in the word, tenderness in his touch. A ceremony he performs again and again. Tree. Tree. Tree. We don’t hurry. Someday, I know, it will be time to learn their different names. Oak. Sycamore. Jacaranda, with purple cotton candy blossoms that blanket the ground each year. But for now, tree is enough.

I’ve noticed an ongoing theme in my own writing of naming things. Language is music—the sounds we call the world by—and I love the songs and the meanings they make. In Murmurations, I wrote about the poetry of bird-group names. A murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens. A bouquet of pheasants, a flamboyance of flamingos, an ostentation of peacocks. Casts of hawks, congregations of eagles, cauldrons of raptors. Swans in a lamentation, turtledoves in a pitying. My favorite: an exaltation of larks. I feel like the poetry of it, the cadence of nouns and syllables catapulting into meaning, is the turning of a key to understanding the thing itself. There are still so many names I do not know, so many names I'll never know. But still, I want to learn as much as I can.

I was not always so obsessed with naming things. Or maybe it just takes a long time to collect a broad naming vocabulary. Either way, when I was younger, the words I used were more generalized. Brown bird, grey bird, so-what bird. Tree, tree, tree. And the world felt generalized too. Vague. Things existed out there, beyond me. For a while, when you are growing up, you get to be immune. You get to turn inward, unseeing the world that beckons at your periphery. You get to think you are untouched by the forces that shape you. But you are not untouched. You are not separate from the song.

For a while, Percy leans on onomatopoeia. Caw, he says, pointing at the birds splashing in the fountain. Caw. No matter if they’re crows or finches or doves or long-beaked thrashers or fire-orange flickers. When the birds flit away, Percy turns to me, lips pursed and brow furrowed. More, he demands. More caw. I tell him we cannot call the birds to us. Naming is not controlling. The birds come and go as they please. When they return to the fountain to drink, Percy stands on his tiptoes atop a table and watches them intently through the window. Bird, he eventually learns to say. More bird.

Not more birds to name, but fewer—the fear inevitably arises when I watch Percy learn to name the world. The loss. The names he’ll never learn, and the names he’ll learn but have nothing to attach them to. A language of absence. Just as the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed the words from its pages, species are erased from our earth. But this doesn’t lessen the urgency of Percy’s learning. It amplifies it. The words he gathers are a testament to attention.

Naming isn’t an act of claiming, or even defining, but an act of witness. Intentional seeing, attuned to the distinct presence of everything around us. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world…finding the words is another step in learning how to see.” Not just to see, but to share. To pay attention, and to tell about it. What we tell about the world, the words and phrases we use, are descriptive not only of the things themselves but of our unique worldview. Languages are lost as silently and irrevocably as species, and with them, the unique perspective of their speakers.

We are losing not just words, but the stories they tell about the ways in which different cultures experienced life. Our earth is haunted as much by the things whose names are all that remain as by all that we can no longer say about it.

Sky, Percy learns to say eventually, watching the birds fly away and throwing his tiny hands upward. Then, blue sky. No matter if the sky is overcast, if a fog curls in from the ocean and cloaks the hills, if night has pulled a dark blanket of stars above. Blue sky. Ecstatic, laughing wildly. There’s no need for more sky. The sky is endless.

Even commonplace words in English, words that are not lost, contain buried stories in their etymology. The word ecology is derived from the Greek oikos, the word for home. Home is everywhere and anywhere. Belonging is the sum of the intensive prefix be- and longen, to go—to find yourself in motion, in movement, in the home of the world. Pilgrimage stems from the French peregrination, to wander, and from the Latin peregrinus, a stranger. Sadness began as the Old English sæd, which meant sated or full; only in the fourteenth century did fullness transform to heaviness, and heaviness to melancholy. Astonishment originally referred to paralysis, and awe to terror.

Naming the world is not just about identifying what is, but about seeking to understand how it came to be, and how our words will continue to shape it in the centuries to come. Connecting the threads of story across time and place and experience. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ent, Treebeard, says, “My name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language.” This is true in all languages. Tolkien knew this well and said as much: “No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.”

How quickly Percy's vocabulary builds, word-threads weaving into a tapestry of everything he sees and feels. Adventure, I teach him while we walk through his neighborhood. Ocean, he learns as the cold saltwater laps over his toes. Soon, ocean adventure will mean we go to the beach. Tree adventure, we’ll walk on the trail. Thank you, he says when I lift him to the window to look outside, and I think of the first drops in a well of gratitude that I hope he carries for his entire life. I love you, he says, and it’s bigger than a heart can hold.

Tolkien was right. It’s love, really, at the center. Love for the music of being alive. As Percy picks up more and more words, not from any curated dictionary but from his lived experience—baby, dog, kitty, bee, wind, flower, tomato, rain—the world is teaching him to name himself.

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