for over a decade I have been collecting place-words: gleaned singly from conversations, correspondences, or books, and jotted down in journals or on slips of paper. Now and then I have hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular dictionaries or extraordinary people—troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages. One such trove turned up on the moors of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 2007. There, I was shown a “Peat Glossary”: a word-list of the hundreds of Gaelic terms for the moorland that stretches over much of Lewis’s interior. Some of the language it recorded was still spoken—but much had fallen into disuse.
Consider ammil, a Devon term meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost,” a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name.