Word Magic

"I know each lane, and every valley green. Dingle, or bushy dell, of this wildwood" - Milton
Spider's Web; Lancashire Dialect
An air bubble in ice; perhaps a variant of 'blob'
Damp woodland with alder or willow; Middle English

I've been inspired recently by two wonderful books, Rober Mcfarlanes’s  “Landmarks
and Dominick Tyler’s “Uncommon Ground: a word-lover's guide to the British landscape”.  Both books explore the potency our nature language – the words that describe the places, hills, waters, weather, paths, fields and wildlife of our countryside.

I have compiled an A-Z of the patch, with terms that home in on a specific detail. These kinds of precise words help us to notice things, that might otherwise be overlooked, they root us in the landscape, give us a sense of place, they perform a kind of word-magic.

Something that has been dug, such as a ditch, pit, mine, or grave; Old English
Eawl-Leet (Owl-Light)
The first light when the owl calls; Lancashire Dialect
Animal footprints in snow

Winston Smith’s job in the novel 1984 was the remove words from the dictionary. The powers that be – ‘Big Brother’ - knew that they could more easily control people whose minds were limited by the absence of words - without the words they didn’t have the concepts of dissent like 'rebellion' and 'uprising'.

The Winston Smith’s who compile the Oxford Junior Dictionary recently had a cull of nature words. Out went 'acorn', 'adder', 'ash', 'beech', 'bluebell', 'buttercup', 'catkin', 'conker', 'cowslip', 'cygnet', 'dandelion', 'fern', in came 'attachment', 'blog' and 'celebrity'.

To link the dictionary to 1984 is perhaps a little unkind, as I’m sure there was nothing of the Thought Police about the purge - the compilers were acting, more, out of utility.

However, it highlights what is being lost – if children don’t have the nature words how will they come to care about nature? I don’t remember receiving my first email attachment, but I do remember seeing my first wren.

Ginny Greenteeth
Dangerous body of water; Lancashire Dialect
Luminous morning mist through which the sun is shining; Poetic
The interweaving of branches of trees

In the same way that the Inuits live in a world of snow, and so have their fabled 50 words to describe it, so, in these rainy isles we have our mud. There are countless dialect words to describe different types of mud from the thick and gloopy – ‘loblolly’ to the muddy footprints next to a path – “stabble.”

Once you have the word for the thing you’re much more likely to notice the thing. It’s the way the brain works. In cultures where there in no word for ‘orange’ people don’t see orange – they just see red.

Since I learnt that ‘interarboration’ is a tangle of branches I’ve been seeing interarborations everywhere!

Overgrown with Rushes
Very Heavy rain; dialect
Thick gloopy mud; dialect

Most people today are unaware of many of these dialect words – they are not all dead however – many live on in place names. For example, Audenshaw is now a very urban part of Manchester, but the ‘shaw’ part - a word for woodland – attests to the origins of the place.

A look at a map of the patch from 1900 reveals a ‘Fold’ (a slight hill), a Delf (something that has been dug) and a ‘Heald’ (a rise). Maps are more than just the location of a place – they often describe the place as well.
Small lake; (N.W. England place name) Old English 
Nacreous (or mother-of-pearl) Clouds
Clouds with Rainbow pattern; Meteorological 
Unregarded piece of land - i.e most of the the patch

Both Landmarks and Uncommon Ground argue very persuasively for an effort to protect these words.

Robert Macfarlane calls for a 'counter-desecration phrasebook'.  Protect the words and so protect the land. Places that go undescribed are more difficult to preserve, and they are harder to describe  without a precise lexicon.

A ripple in wood grain; Scottish
A soft boggy area of land that gives way underfoot; Old English
Remains of a stone wall; Old English

Mud churned by footfall; dialect
Thrush's Anvil
Stone used by Song thrush to break open snail shells
Plant life growing beneath the forest canopy

The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams of A Hitchhiker’s  Guide to the Galaxy fame has long been a favourite of mine.

It's a humorous dictionary of freshly minted words - words that don’t exist but should do .

For example:

Acklins (The odd twinges you get in parts of your body when you scratch other parts).

Bickerstaffe (The person in an office that everyone whinges about in the pub).

Dewlish (Of the hands and feet  - Prune-like after an overlong bath).

So in the spirit of Liff (and to occupy those difficult X,Y and Z spots) the last three words are my own coinages.
A thin coating of ice or frozen rain on an exposed surface. French

Witches knickers
Snagged, discarded pieces of plastic; Recent, Irish

Wood that resembles a body part
The sensation of having seen more that enough fields of rape.
Like a pressed flower but with animals - usually roadkill.

Get this


  1. Love it! You have brought back memories, thank you! My favourite from my Somerset childhood .... Untytump = Mole hill.

  2. Thanks Judy 'untytump' is a great one - I almost had 'tump' for my 't' word

  3. A great compilation of unusual words here Phil, lots of which are new to me. I'd heard about the cull of nature words in the Oxford dictionary, a great shame when they're being replaced with the likes of 'celebrity'. Is 'selfie-stick' in there yet I wonder???

  4. Thanks a lot Jan, I would have thought selfie-stick, will be in there soon, although surprisingly my spell checker seems not to know anything about it!

  5. I love the way you've illustrated the words with photos! Great :)

  6. Great read. Important to preserve these words. I remember that donkeys years ago in Lancashire we'd say spadger for sparrow and throt for thrush. Don't know if anyone still says that.

    1. Still Spadgers to me here in the South West :)

    2. 'Spadger' and 'Throt' - brilliant thanks - I know 'throstle' for thrush

  7. Is there perhaps a tiny typo in definition of Yellowverload? I love this word so much and can relate so strongly that I do want to it be correct - 'that' should be 'than' i think.

    1. Well, not a typo as I spelt it that way intentionally, however I did wonder whether 'Yelloverload' would be better ...hmm perhaps it would be ...is that what you thinking?

  8. Great blog! regarding "Ginny Greenteeth" - where I grew up (Glossop, Derbyshire, in the 1970s) there was an old, walled boggy patch of land on the way to school. We had a story about a “Granny Greenteeth” attached to it. No one would go in!

    1. Thanks! So the precautionary tale did its job!


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