Magazine article The New Yorker

Gift Words

Magazine article The New Yorker

Gift Words

Article excerpt

Gift Words

In 2015, the British writer Robert Macfarlane published "Landmarks," a book about the language of place. In it, he catalogued regional words for things like fields and streams and icicles, which, he found out, were called "clinkerbells" and "dagglers" in Wessex, and "cancervells" in Exmoor; "ickles" in Yorkshire; "tankles" in Durham; "shuckles" in Cumbria; and "aquabob" in Kent. The book became a best-seller, an excerpt in the Guardian went viral--Britain!--and, since then, Macfarlane has found himself on the receiving end of a "speat" (sudden flood, Cumbria) or "cenllif" (torrent, Wales) of mail. He's acquired so many "gift words," as he calls them, that he appended to the paperback edition a list of five hundred entries culled from readers' letters. He said the other day, "The one word that's travelled the most widely from the whole project is 'smeuse,' " which is Sussex dialect for a hole made in the bottom of a hedge by a small animal.

One morning recently, Macfarlane was standing before the Great Oriental Plane Tree, "an incredible lightning storm of spaghetti," as he described it, that, for at least two centuries, has dominated the grounds of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he teaches.

"See here, two branches have grown into each other, this amazing sort of pythonish entwining?" he said. "That's called 'inosculation,' which literally means 'interkissing,' or 'in-kissing,' as it were. It's where the tree has kissed itself. It's also called 'pleaching.' "

Macfarlane got the word from a mycologist. He posted it on his Twitter account, which he set up a few weeks ago partly to reintroduce his crowdsourced lexicon into the wild. "Inosculation" got nine hundred and eighty likes, more than "sastrugi" (long, wavelike ridges of hardened snow) but not as many as "petrichor" (the smell in the air as or before rain falls on hot dry ground).

One commenter posted a picture of the conjoined trunks of two sycamores and wrote, "Now I'm ashamed to say I've always thought of these two as 'the snoggers.' " Until September, a selection of the letters and "bits of yellowed prewar foolscap" that Macfarlane has received will be on display at the Wordsworth House and Garden, in Cumbria, alongside nature photographs by Macfarlane's parents, John and Rosamund.

"I'll call and say, 'Mum, do you happen to have a sun dog?' " he explained.

" 'Oh, yes,' " she'll reply. " 'Here's one from Back o' Skiddaw, in January.' " (Sun dogs, also called "parhelia," are "glowing spots to either side of the sun, caused by light refracting in airborne ice crystals. …

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