“He knew, in many cases, the precise number of steps required to reach a particular cabin, and once he selected a target, he bounded and wove through the forest, a touch of Tarzan to his style. ‘I have woodscraft,‘ Knight acknowledged, choosing an elegant term.”
– Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods
Elegant? I’d say so, but is it a word? It’s a good question. While there’s no doubt that [Christopher] Knight — the so-called North Pond Hermit* — had it, I can tell you who doesn’t: The Oxford English Dictionary, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Winston Dictionary, and all of the other references (encyclopedias, subject-area dictionaries, and thesauri) housed within the Butter Lamb Reference Library.
It was a similar story for the online references I consulted. When I searched woodscraft on Dictionary.com, I was met with this insulting response:
No, jackass, that’s not what I meant. Merriam-Webster.com gave me a similar response, although they were a little nicer about it.
Well, maybe it’s not, but does its absence from your fancy book mean it isn’t a word? This was quickly turning into my ordeal with the word anachronist** all over again!
Having just read Word by Word, a book written by Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, I am sure that the good folks at MW (or any other dictionary) would never be so bold as to say woodscraft wasn’t a word. After all, no dictionary contains every word in the English language.
Be that as it may, it is interesting that here in the digital age, when anyone can find the answer to anything in just a few clicks (wink, wink, nudge, nudge … and we’re taking your personal information and selling it to advertisers, by the way), it remains difficult to find a website offering a solid definition for woodscraft.
Yet, although the online dictionaries let me down, I was able to come up with something. Using the search terms “woodscraft” and “word” (with the quotation marks … even though I’m not sure using them helps), I was given a bazillion search results that equated woodscraft with woodworking (which is clearly not what Knight is referring to in the excerpt at the top of this post) and one that offered something useful.
While this excerpt from a college course catalog doesn’t offer a definition of woodscraft per se, it does sort of explain the word in a way that meshes with the flavor and tone of the excerpt from The Stranger in the Woods that I used to launch this rant.
“Skills and knowledge useful for living out-of-doors with minimal equipment,” “manufacturing items from the immediate surroundings,” “general woods-knowledge.” It ain’t pretty, but I’ll take it.
Good job internet!
* Seriously, if you’re not familiar with Christopher Knight, a real life hermit who survived alone in the woods of Maine, all year-long, for more than 20 years, then you should check out The Stranger in the Woods. It’s an amazing story.