‘Dumberdash’ is an old Cheshire term for a short but violent storm. A ‘lumpenhole’ is a deep trench for fluid farmyard waste. The man who remembers these words is among the scores of people who have written to Dr Robert Macfarlane in response to his latest book, Landmarks.

A cowshed was always a shippon. Cowshed was considered very infra dig – fit only for those in the despised south.

Retired farmer, Cheshire

For more than a decade Dr Robert Macfarlane has collected endangered words. Not just any words but words for aspects of landscape – its contours, its feel underfoot, its weathers and moods – made fragile by the passing of time and the changing of practices. Lists of these words, organised into themed glossaries, form the backbone of his latest book Landmarks.

In the text that accompanies his word lists, Macfarlane travels from the peat bogs of the Isle of Lewis to the flatlands of the Cambridgeshire fens in search of hidden lexical treasure. Flying into Stornoway over the brown moorland expanses of Lewis, he overhears a couple joking that they have come to see nothing. Half an hour later, he’s talking to a Lewisian friend who is compiling a glossary of Gaelic peat-language: it encompasses 120 terms.

When Macfarlane wrote an article for the Guardian Review about Landmarks, he added a postscript inviting readers to send him postcards noting their words for landscape. He wasn’t sure whether people still sent postcards. They do. The cards reproduced here (with permission from senders) are just a few of the dozens that have found their way into Macfarlane’s pigeon hole at Emmanuel College.

View postcards on Flickr

A ‘dimple’, writes one correspondent, is Derbyshire for a pool in a wood or dell. ‘Geevy’, informs a card from Cornwall, is a mixture of mist and drizzle – “as in it’s a geevy old day”. A Radnorshire word for molehill is ‘unty-tump’. Written on the back of a postcard of the Cairngorms is: “eddish = 2nd crop of hay.” ‘Sprittin’ is “sprouting as in the hawthorn’s sprittin, spring’s on its way.”

John Birkett, who as a boy helped on farms in Cheshire, sent a handwritten list of more than 50 terms, subdivided and graded by x (possibly in use), xx (known to me as a lad) and xxx (known by my father in the 1920s). ‘Puthery’, meaning very humid, is “still used naturally by wife and I”. A cowshed is always a ‘shippon’:  the word cowshed was never used as “it was considered very infra dig – fit only for those in the despised south”.

Each day brings more post. The latest is a letter from Mary West who lives in Westhorpe in Nottinghamshire. She writes to offer Macfarlane a large collection of words and sayings, recorded on index cards. She has been gathering words relating to the countryside for 40 years. “I’ve always collected things and I love words,” she says. “I’ve made around 25 scrap books about the lovely village where I live.”

Though unable to respond personally, Macfarlane would like to thank all those who sent not just words but poems and stories. They include writers and academics, a Jungian analyst, a ‘lollipop man’ and a lady in Lancashire aged 96. Their messages suggest how much their words for landscape mean to them. Recording and archiving their contributions will be a project in its own right.

Macfarlane would like more people to write to him with their word-gifts. Contributors should restrict their offerings to words that describe aspects of the landscapes of Britain and Ireland (names for places but no place-names, please), and could come from any of the many languages, dialects and sub-dialects of these islands, from Gaelic to Welsh, Shetlandic to Jérriais.

 


Ways to get involved and contribute more words

Send postcards to: Dr Robert Macfarlane, Emmanuel College, St Andrews Street, Cambridge CB2 3AP.

Send tweets using #livinglanguage

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