Ash trees in Gloucestershire. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Finding a better word for “tree”: why naming the landscape could be the thing to save it

Photographer Dominick Tyler began the “The Landreader Project” to collect countryside vocabulary after finding his own impoverished. Could saving the Earth be a matter of language?

It is a grim day in January and we are walking towards Walthamstow Marshes on the outskirts of east London. Seagulls straggle the sky, grey against grey, like flakes of ash from a dwindling fire. With his hands in his pockets, the photographer Dominick Tyler is keeping warm in a hat and bright-green jacket, and telling me about his latest project.

While working on a commission about swimming in the wild, Tyler began to write notes on the landscape he was shooting. “I’m a country lad,” he thought, “this’ll be easy.” But he found he had no more than the “bare bones” required to write – a landscape vocabulary that was stunningly impoverished. Over time, Tyler began to flesh out his diction, collecting word after unfamiliar word as a child collects marbles, taking suggestions from the public and creating an online glossary known as “The Landreader Project”.

“But it’s cold and damp today,” I moan, “and this is London: flat, muted and bleak.”

“Try ‘stagnal,’” says Tyler. “Of or delighting in wet or marshy places.”

The mud next to our path, he suggests, is “stabble”, gloopy contours shaped by footprints. The gap formed behind the hedge to our right is a “twitchel”, “twitten” or a “ginnel”, depending on where you are in the UK.

“The plastic bag caught in a tree above our heads,” he says gleefully, “is a pair of ‘witch’s knickers’. Maybe she took off too quickly, maybe it was a low pass.” This expression made its first appearance in Ireland.

Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo were among a group of writers who recently criticised Oxford University Press for dropping certain nature words from its Junior Dictionary. “Acorn” and “catkin” have been scrapped; “broadband” and “cut-and-paste” added.

Not knowing the names of things makes them easier to discard. If our politicians know only “rain”, “silt” and “dredging”, the complexity of the flooding in Britain will never be understood. If trees are only ever “trees”, and not “birch”, “ash” or “sycamore”, their quality and value diminish in our minds.

“It makes it easier to cut them down,” Tyler adds. “It’s easy to be dispassionate about someone until you know his name is Stephen and his mother is Gladys. It’s easy to feel disconnected from what you don’t have a language for.”

We head to a local café where we warm our fingers with tea served in porcelain mugs as toddlers shimmy around the table legs and parents slouch wearily at the side.

Isn’t this project about loss?

“Sometimes you can’t account for the senses you experience in terms of sight, smell or hearing a landscape,” Tyler says. “There will always be wordless experiences, thank goodness, but knowing these words allows us to tell a richer story. They connect us with the history of the words and the other people who know them.”

I head home, past a tree scrawled with lovers’ initials. The bark has grown around the cuts, curving to accommodate each letter. The words Tyler collects remain alive, too – shifting, changing – long after we have departed the landscape, like mushroom spores lying dormant in the soil. Some are scrawled in the notes of park rangers, fishermen and mountaineers. Others lie patiently in books, waiting to be dredged up and catalogued for the digital future.

It’s as if the landscape is dilating around me. “It is an entirely other feeling,” Tyler said earlier, his voice quickening with excitement. “Almost like a separate sensory input.” He’s right.

Uncommon Ground: a word-lover's guide to the British landscape by Dominick Tyler will be published in March by Guardian Faber

Lucy Purdy is a freelance writer from rural Shropshire, now living in north London. She writes on the environment, landscape and our connection with the natural world. Follow her on Twitter as @Loosepea

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.