Cowslip by Bernard Johnson

Cowslip by Bernard Johnson


This carving, in Portland stone, by Bernard Johnson, celebrates the word ‘Cowslip’, and was created as part of our exhibition ‘The Lost Words - Forget-me-not.’ For this exhibition artists have created a permanent record of the natural words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Size: 44 x 33cm


A European primula with clusters of drooping fragrant yellow flowers in spring, growing on dry grassy banks and in pasture.

Primula veris, family Primulaceae

ORIGIN: Old English cūslyppe, from cū ‘cow’ + slipa, slyppe ‘slime’, i.e. cow slobber or dung

When I was invited to contribute to this exhibition I was intrigued, not least because forty years ago as a young marketing manager at OUP I worked on the first edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. I was fascinated that the deletion of vocabulary describing the natural world had caused such a stir, and been the inspiration for a new and beautifully illustrated book. Critics have decried the loss of some pastoral words – but we must be comforted by the thought that they will not entirely disappear: certainly not those memorialized here. 

I have chosen to carve COWSLIP. In his 1633 Herbal, Gerard wrote of the cowslip’s medicinal properties, and commended them ‘against the paine of the joints called the Gout’. More poetically, a fairy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells Puck: ‘in their gold coats spots you see/Those be rubies, fairy favours…/I must go seek some dewdrops here/And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.’ As long as people read Shakespeare, the name of the cowslip will endure.

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