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Estuary English: What It Means to Understand a Place

Liz Clift

This January, I read an article about the way the English language is evolving, and how “the words that give us our sense of place” are slowly being removed from modern dictionaries. The article discussed a 1996 book by John R. Stilgoe, Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English. An estuary, if you’re not quite clear on the term, is generally* a body of brackish water with at least one river or stream flowing into it, and a connection to the ocean.

Stilgoe, a professor of the history of landscape at Harvard, has described himself as a person who goes around noticing things. It’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that this noticing—and at least in part an attempt to salvage the words—is what prompted Stilgoe to write Shallow Water Dictionary, which is as narrative as something that calls itself a dictionary can be. Stilgoe guides readers through different terms, including some that we probably use (or at least hear) regularly in other contexts.

Guzzle, for instance, isn’t what you do to your beer so you can order another before last call. In estuary English, it is “the low spaces on barrier beaches that sometimes allow spring tides or storm tides to pass over the beach into marshes inland from the sea.” Knowing this definition, I realize I have seen what were probably guzzles on beaches (sometimes with water, sometimes without), and at best I thought it was a dip in the land or perhaps the mouth of a small creek. To me, there is a beauty in better understanding the words that make up a place, because it gives the world more texture. This texture helps us recognize the ways the natural world makes human life possible.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the 32 largest cities in the world, 22 are located on estuaries because estuaries provide food, recreational opportunities, jobs, and coastal protection. Estuaries also act like “sponges” because they can soak up excess water from floods and stormy tidal surges—which makes them an important component of coastal management.

In fact, NOAA finds estuaries so important that Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) to protect more than 1.3 million acres (>2,000 miles2 or an area roughly the size of Delaware). NERRS is comprised of 28 coastal sites, focused on the following:

  • Stewardship
  • Research
  • Training
  • Education

During National Estuaries Week (September 17-24), the reserves will be hosting a variety of fun and educational events intended to build awareness about the role estuaries play in our ecosystem.

As a person who holds degrees in both environmental studies and English, I think should care about the words of estuarine English, and the other words that describe nature that are slowly being removed from our language. In 2015, a New Yorker article by Stefan Fatsls, “Panic at the Dictionary” noted that the Oxford Junior Dictionary would no longer include words like blackberry, buttercup, fern, ferret, minnow, and moss. Other words removed from that edition of the dictionary included acorn, dandelion, lobster, raven, and willow. While roughly 400 nature-based words still appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary and these words still appear in other editions of the Oxford dictionary, it’s critical to note that it’s hard to get people to care about things they don’t understand or don’t believe has any relevance to them.

And, it’s hard to help people understand the texture of the world, and the cultural myths that come along with that texture, if a yellow flower is just a yellow flower and not, say, a dandelion which will eventually provide a seed head we can blow on to make a wish or a buttercup, which we can rub under our chins to see if we’re in love.

Of course, in some cases, the texture of the world is influenced by where you grow up. It’s common knowledge that region impacts language use (think about how soft drink, pop, and soda all describe the same thing, for instance). In Shallow Water Dictionary, Stilgoe highlights the different ways different estuarine words are used in different places and how they have evolved over time. Creek, along the eastern seaboard from Maine through North Carolina, refers to “salt-water inlets of small streams that empty into the sea.” That being said, people in the southern United States might also refer to a stream as a creek or a branch—a fact that James Fenimore Cooper noted in his 1838 book, American Democrat.

This week, if you live near an estuary and have the means, go visit it. Consider that it’s a complex part of our ecosystem and our livelihoods. And, if you take pictures, share them with us.

salt-marsh

Randall’s Island Salt Marsh – Learn more about this project here.

*Fresh water estuaries also exist, and are defined as a unique combination of river and lake water that have different chemical properties.

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