Nature Words on the Brink of Extinction

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 2, 2009 12

My mom knew the words for every wildflower we passed.

I have an unusual dictionary. It’s titled Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, published by Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas, in 2006. In it, various naturalists define words such as “dune,” “kettle” and “narrows.”

In my everyday Merriam Webster’s, for example, “riffle” is described as “a shallow extending across a streambed and causing broken water; a small wave or succession of small waves: a ripple.” In Home Ground, conservationist and author William deBuys—whose work in North Carolina, Arizona and New Mexico has led to the permanent protection of public and private lands totaling over 150,000 acres—explains it as “the little brother of a rapid. It is a shallow section of stream where sediment has been deposited, often in response to the upstream scouring of a pool. As water flows over the obstruction, the current becomes more turbulent and breaks into a succession of small waves. Riffles produce some of the happiest voices of a river, murmuring and chattering, never roaring or growling with argument.”

Frankly, I can see a need for both styles of definition. Sometimes, you just want to know what a word means. At other moments, you’re interested in its breadth; what concepts it’s capable of conveying, especially when it comes to nature terms. But what happens when the words themselves—such as “canary” or “vine”—disappear from the dictionary altogether, without a trace?

What happens when a word like “wren” no longer appears in children’s dictionaries?

The endangered list

According to an article in the October/November 2009 issue of National Wildlife Magazine titled “When Words Become Endangered” by Anne Keisman, more than 30 nature terms were taken out of the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which was published in 2007. “Acorn,” “otter” and “wren” are three that are no longer present. On the other hand, the expressions “chatroom,” “MP3 player” and “cut and paste” do, now, appear.

It’s the job of a children’s dictionary to help kids understand the words that they hear in the world around them. And if those words revolve around technology, then that dictionary is fulfilling its mission. But you have to wonder why children aren’t also hearing about “dandelions” or “beavers,” two words that were also removed.

Generation gap?

My mother never had the chance to finish 12th grade. Being the eldest daughter with seven siblings, my grandfather suddenly decided just before she graduated that “she was needed at home.” But while I was growing up, I was always impressed by how she knew the name of every wildflower and every plant we passed by—not their formal Latin labels, but the common and colorful ones. I, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to identify all the varieties of trees on the little acre and a half of woods where I live.

Without the word “dandelion” in her dictionary, would a child today recognize one in her yard or in the woods?

I think with each new generation, there’s a degrading of a connection to nature. I see it in my own children, who are even less capable of naming the plants and trees around them than I am. In the same vein, though, I’ve heard my daughter, a biochemist, remark, “It’s surprising how little people know about the nature of human beings, about the basic molecules they’re made of.”

It could it be that because I write on nature topics, I notice how rare the words of landscapes are. How often do you hear “glade” or “quagmire” or “traprock” mentioned anymore? Maybe because she’s a scientist, my daughter is sensitive to our increasing unfamiliarity with basic biology. On the other hand, perhaps there’s an information technology expert out there saying just the opposite: “How articulate children are today!”

Do you think the scarcity of nature words in our day-to-day conversations is contributing to our growing disassociation with the natural world? And if so, how will children learn to discover their place within it and their responsibility toward the environment? Please post your thoughts below.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Branimir Gjetvaj November 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    I remember fondly floating down a riffle in a canoe, paddles retracted and resting on the gunnels. People who have never had the same experience will not understand the definition of the word “riffle” however you phrase it. Our real problem is that we have fewer and fewer people floating down riffles in a canoe.

  2. Riley Carter May 5, 2010 at 12:41 am - Reply

    the oil spill in Mexico would surely be one of the greatest environmental disasters for this year.’;”

  3. Crea McKeen December 2, 2009 at 11:28 am - Reply

    It is up to us as Earth advocates to truly school our children! “Nine Quiet Lessons”, “Art Hardy”, and “Patty Davis” are on the right track, let’s dedicate and get busy!

  4. Patty Davis November 17, 2009 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    This report makes me sad. When the grandkids visit me for Thanksgiving, we will have to make time to go for a walk in the woods and talk nature.

    (NOTE: This comment was originally posted on a version of this article found at —C.G.A.)

  5. Kathleen Wiersch, San Jose Eco-Travel Examiner November 13, 2009 at 9:59 am - Reply

    I just bought my toddlers (I know, but they’ll grow into it) the Scholastic Children’s Dictionary which is available through those school book clubs in November. I am happy to report that “acorn”, “dandelion” and “vine” are all there. This dictionary also includes other words/phrases dear to my heart like “compost” “endangered species” and “global warming.” We can all help our kids develop a “natural” vocabulary by getting them outside and pointing things out to them and asking them questions like “why do you think that oak tree drops those acorns?”

    (NOTE: This comment was originally posted on a version of this article found at —C.G.A.)

  6. Art Hardy November 12, 2009 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Dictionaries are a reflection of words that represent an arbitrary reflection of what’s important to contemporary society. Words that represent what is of personal significance must be passed down within the family and it’s social circle.

  7. John Howard Gaukel November 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    New words vs. old words: “global warming”– polar bears, “oil spill” — marine life, “polluted lake” — marsh, “landfill seepage” — clean drinking water, “smog alert” — clean air, “plastic container” — pristine landscapes, “depredation” — wolves, “vanishing ozone layer” — humans. John Howard

  8. Nine Quiet Lessons November 4, 2009 at 3:35 am - Reply

    It’s likely that this trend will continue, as our living spaces become increasingly urbanized. The only remedy would be an educational program focused on the natural world; something like the old natural sciences programs.

  9. Kris November 3, 2009 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Never like that kids’ dictionary in the first place!

  10. Fern November 3, 2009 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    That makes me sad… it’s like Newspeak in 1984. We’ll, maybe more like the replacement of language. I suppose kids don’t complain about knickers or how much fun they had with their whirligigs. I’m pretty happy about that, actually. Now that “Dune” is out of the dictionary, maybe we can remove all of Frank Herbert’s books from the canon and save our children from nerd literature at large?

  11. Travis November 2, 2009 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Sooner or later, we’re just going to trash this whole place and have to blast off in the camper RV shuttle into the cosmos. Wherever it lands, there’s going to have to be a whole lot of new names for interesting… rocks. Then children will have to learn the names of the rocks and forget them over the generations all over again.

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