The language of nature

There is a book The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris that has seen campaigns to get a copy in every school in Scotland and further afield, you may know it already. The book started as a response to the Oxford Children’s Dictionary deciding to drop nature words such as ‘acorn’ and ‘bluebell’ because today’s young people are seemingly more likely to need to know the definition of ‘broadband’. Hopefully this book’s popularity will help to reconnect families with the environment in some small way, after all it has been said if we don’t have a name for something it is harder for us to connect to it, understand it or care for it.
Fortunately, there are many words for natural things and not just in English!

Plants, animals and other living things have their local names in English and Scots, Gaelic and Doric, so to save confusion they have also all been given a Latin name, which is used for the same thing across the world. Each Latin name starts with the family name and then the individual species name follows, a bit like our first names and surnames, but in reverse.
An example is the wild pansy that you see growing all across Forvie for most of the summer. It has many different English names, but its Latin name is Viola tricolor. This tells us it is a member of the Viola (violet) family, which are generally purple. Wild pansies are purple, white and yellow so to set it apart it was given a Latin name which means the 3-coloured violet.

Wild pansies, Viola tricolor at Forvie

More complicated, but just as delightful is the latin name for our very own Eider ducks: Somateria mollissima. Broken down, soma means ‘body’, eria comes from the Latin for ‘wool’, mollis means ‘soft’ and issima is added to mean ‘very’.  Put together, eiders are ducks whose bodies are covered in very soft wool!  Eider down feathers are certainly softer and warmer than sheep’s wool.

‘woolly’ ducklings are starting to hatch at Forvie

In Doric, Eiders are annets, while we are all worried about the declining numbers of foggy bummers in our gardens and countryside.  The reserve has a more healthy population of hornie gollachs, which tumble out from the noticeboards when posters are changed!

Collective nouns exist for lots of Forvie’s birds and animals, although how often do you see large gatherings of some of them?

Starlings do like to congregate in number and while they are noisily chattering in flocks on the ground or on telephone wires they are known as a Quarrel.  Once they take to flight in spectacular winter swarms at dusk, they become the more familiar Murmuration.

a Murmuration of Starlings

In Spring at Forvie during brief spells of sunshine, your spirits may be lifted by an Exaltation of Skylarks, when territorial males start signing on high.  A Charm of Goldfinches is also a treat to see and hear, while a Bazaar of Guillemots is rather more noisy!

The corvid family gets less appealing and rather unjust names when they gather.  A Mob of Jackdaws, a Murder of Crows and an Unkindness of Ravens are thought to come from medieval superstition that these black birds were associated with devilry and witchcraft. 

While you might also encounter a flutter of butterflies, a loveliness of ladybirds or a knot of toads, our wildflowers and plants don’t seem to have many associated collective nouns.  Perhaps you could make up your own, how about a constellation of daisies?  A barrage of gorse? A stinging of nettles seems the obvious choice!

A constellation of daisies in a meadow cosmos?

Language is always changing, just as nature around us is too.  It may be acceptable for things to change, but less so to disappear completely.  My final word for this blog is one you should get to know – Biodiversity.  It is viewed as a bit of an awkward buzz word at times, but it just means a rich mixture of life.  Scotland, along with other nations across the world has pledged to protect and increase the biodiversity in our care, as it is known that if we continue to lose species and the natural places they live, then the consequences for the planet will be disastrous. 

Get to know the names of your local wildlife if you can, but make up your own if you can’t! It is the first step to looking after it.

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  1. Pingback: The language of nature — Forvie National Nature Reserve

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