Landmarks and word-hoards

20170717_090621“This book is about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place. … Landmarks has been years in the making. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the work of writers who use words exactly and exactingly when describing landscape and natural life.” (Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, Penguin Books, 2016, p. 1).

MacFarlane’s book is in the genre of ‘nature writing’ that seems to be enjoying a renaissance now – or perhaps it has been there but has recently become more mainstream. Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is an early exponent of the genre (originally published 1788, my Folio Society edition is from 1994 – it was an unbound copy which I bound myself. However I haven’t read it!).

Landmarks has chapters on various natural features such as mountains, woods and water, farmland, and so on. Each chapter ends with a glossary (little word-hoards) of unusual and perhaps now little used words from various languages and dialects of the United Kingdom and Ireland. And each of his chapters is usually about an encounter with someone who has written about the area they live in and often includes a walk MacFarlane takes with them – unless of course the author is dead.

I have long been interested in words and languages, but I have to admit that despite attempts at learning a number of languages over many years, I’m a long way from fluent in any except English. In 1981 I bought the book (in the photo above) Europa versteht sich – 1000 words in 23 languages. I think I bought it in Amsterdam although it is a German book. As I was then travelling in Europe I loved comparing the words – similarities and differences between different languages. I now realise it may have had a darker purpose – when looking for the publication date I see it was published in Munich in 1943: in the middle of World War Two, so it may have been intended for German soldiers.


In the early 1980s back home in Wellington, I borrowed a book or two of Old English riddles (in modern translation) from the library and as I loved some of the words, I started a little notebook to list some. I hadn’t heard of many of the words that appear in MacFarlane’s glossaries, but I started adding some I particularly liked to my notebook until I realised there were too many!

Another notebook I copied language related snippets into at this time (it is an otherwise unused 1982 diary):

Quite a lot of the words he lists he says come from Northamptonshire. My Jones ancestors came from there and were agricultural labourers who emigrated to New Zealand in 1842. It seems likely that they may have used some of these words. I even re-read the interviews I did with my mother to see if any of these words may have come down to her, but could find no evidence of it.

In his glossary about livestock, MacFarlane lists the following, apparently originating in Herefordshire:

Chook-chook-chook – a call to chickens

Dilly-dilly-dilly – a call to ducks

Ho-ho-ho – a call to cattle

Koop-koop-koop – a call to horses (and there are a few others – pages 259 to 261).

We kept chickens in our urban backyard when I was growing up (until I was about 10 or 11) and I used ‘chook chook chook’ (and still do when I meet any chickens!) I presume I heard my mother use it. None of the other calls are at all familiar, but we didn’t have any of those animals.

For anyone who likes nature writing or words, I highly recommend Landmarks.

The photo at the start of this post includes a few other books: a dual translation (Old English and Modern English) of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf; The Story of English, Robert McCrum et al, 1986 – this accompanied a very good BBC television series; Eunoia by Christian Bok (prose poems comprising words using only one vowel – so all ‘a’, ‘e’, etc – very clever!) And this book:  Wisps of Mist – a book of nature poetry and prints. It is the prints I particularly like. The author and artist is Gwen Frostic of Michigan, USA. It is a self-published book that I acquired at an op shop in Wellington, NZ.


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