Words In Place
Robert Macfarlane, The Word-Hoard
'My favourite park's a car park, grass is something you smoke,
birds are something you shag.'
Pulp, I Spy
When I wrote the first two Quiet War novels, largely set in the icy moons of the outer planets, I was able to use the real names of real places. They were from maps compiled using images taken by the two Voyagers, Cassini and other robot space probes, but of course they showed only the geographical features - the craters and montes, the faculae, planitiae, regiones, flumina and so on. Robert Macfarlane has written an ode to the huge variety of words for the small-scale features and transient phenomena in our landscapes, and notes that, by naming something, it becomes more observable, more memorable. If ever people come to live on Callisto and Dione, Titan and Oberon and Charon, they will certainly develop their own fine-grained language of place, the equivalent of Macfarlane's 'terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.'
Meanwhile, it occurs to me that we need something similar to describe features peculiar to the urban landscape. There are already some - the Oxford dictionary, for instance, has recorded the variety of regional variant names for alleys. But we need more. Words for the plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree (as opposed to the plastic bag caught on the razor-wire of a security fence), the ring of green algae that grows at the bases of street lights and traffic signs in winter, the water that lurks under a loose paving stone. The temporary freshet that wells from a broken water pipe. The weeds that crack through concrete. The weeds that grow at the seam between pavement and wall. The hump in tarmac raised by a tree root. The wind that skirls down the side of a skyscraper. The gleam of low winter sun on a glass curtain wall. Those things inhabitants of cities unsee every day, because as yet they lack the vocabulary to make them a permanent part of the urban experience.