Art of rescuing lost words

Lost words (2)
Picture of Tracy Edstein

Tracy Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the former editor of Aurora Magazine

Former Master General of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe OP, observes in his latest book, Alive in God (2019) an interesting phenomenon regarding the inclusion or exclusion of words in a dictionary:

Robert MacFarlane [The Lost Words 2017] noticed that a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had dropped these words: acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

As something of an Anglophile, the missing words have great appeal because of their very Englishness. The new words have much more of an international flavour, unsurprisingly.

Another book that appeals greatly is Dominick Tyler’s Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape (2015). I suspect the words he explores and defines – like fell, scarp and meander – are also in danger of disappearing as language becomes less local and more global.

This notion of lost words is arrestingly brought to life in Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020). The novel is based on the story of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1879 and completed in 1928.

The process of collecting words for the dictionary is gloriously democratic and collaborative, with hundreds of contributors sending words, their meanings and a quotation to illustrate meaning on slips of paper through the post. A team of lexicographers works diligently to process and consider each submission, carefully filing slips in pigeonholes in their scriptorium. A scriptorium is the writing room of a monastery and these men – assisted by young women – see their work as a calling.  

The first ‘lost word’ discovered by protagonist Esme Nicoll, whose father Harry is one of the lexicographers, is bondmaid. Its meaning becomes clear when Harry explains to Esme, still a child, “Lizzie is fortunate to be in service, but for you it would be unfortunate … Service means different things to different people, Essy, depending on their position in society.”   

Esme continues her practice of ‘rescuing’ lost words and keeping them in a trunk belonging to Lizzie, who is something of a mother figure. Esme’s mother Lily died in childbirth.

As Esme becomes a young woman, her maturing paralleling the development of the dictionary, she is schooled in the ways of the world, sometimes at great cost. She learns about the movement for women’s suffrage through Tilda and her quest for new words takes her to the markets which are peopled with colourful characters with equally colourful vocabularies.   

And what has all this to do with our contemporary Australian church? Well, the Plenary Council is now scheduled for 2021 with its theme of “Listen to what the Spirit is saying.”

While its process has been largely digital – no pigeonholes, slips of paper or scriptoria – there has been the opportunity for any and everyone to contribute. Those contributions have formed the six discernment papers which now provide a basis for further discernment, reflection and conversation.

As the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled, some words were discarded. Harry Nicoll explains to Esme, “Some will be left out …They’re just not solid enough … Not enough people have written them down.”

Later, Esme explains to Lizzie: “Some words just don’t make sense and they throw them away.”

Esme Nicoll learned that in her turn of the century world, the words discarded often arose from the experience of women. Eventually she is gifted her own collection, Women’s Words and Their Meanings, by her typesetter-husband Gareth, and she treasures it, but the words are still deemed “not solid enough”.                                                                                    

One of the challenges faced by the Plenary Council delegates will be to gather up and consider as fully as possible as many as possible of the submissions. That will be their most direct way of ‘listening to what the Spirit is saying’. Women’s voices have traditionally not been heard at the highest levels of the church – and when they have been heard it has often been at the behest of men, usually ordained.

The yardstick of how effectively this has been done will be simple: how much will change in the everyday experience of women of the church? Once the gospel is proclaimed, will a woman proceed to the ambo on any Sunday? Will the hierarchy of language remain in prayers and official statements? It’s always from the pope down, meaning that the People of God are kept in their place.

The continually unfolding scandals involving (almost exclusively) ordained and consecrated men surely demand cultural change, and yet such change is actively resisted. The pandemic has led each of us to reconsider our priorities, our values, our way of being in the world. It should add another dimension to every level of church – parish, diocese, religious congregations, agencies.

We are a church that worships a risen Jesus and proclaims resurrection for all. In this life, Esme’s aunt Ditte reminds her, “Words are our tools of resurrection.”

It’s critical that the words the council delegates hear represent the widest possible scope of our church − and that they are not like words that live in the pages of a dictionary but have legs – wings! − in the post-COVID world we all anticipate with hope.

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