A few months ago, a new edition* of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) was published. Not exactly an earth-shattering event I know, but one whose aftershocks were severe enough to be felt across the UK, and perhaps even across the English-speaking world. ‘Shocking and poorly considered,’ was the verdict of some ; others described it as ‘alarming.’ What was it that the linguistic boffins of Oxford University Press (OUP) had done to provoke such an outcry?
It was not that they had dropped some words and added others — after all, they are dictionary editors, it’s what they do. It was not even the specific words that had been dropped or added, but rather what their addition or deletion signified that had people up in arms
Here are some of the words excised: acorn, bluebell, colt, cowslip, cygnet, doe, dandelion, ferret, gerbil, hazelnut, heron, kingfisher, lark, magpie, newt, otter, piglet, pansy, starling, thrush, weasel, and willow.
Here are some of the ones added: analogue, bullet point, blog, broadband, biodegradable, celebrity, chat room, endangered, MP3 player and voicemail
You can see where this is going.
Twenty eight authors, poets, illustrators, broadcasters and naturalists including Sara Maitland, Margaret Atwood, Richard Maybey , Andrew Motion, Helen Macdonald and Ruth Padel wrote to the OUP asking them to reconsider. “We base this plea on two considerations,” the letter states. “Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment. Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem
The letter cites research which establishes that whereas 40 per cent of the country’s children played in natural areas a generation ago, only 10 per cent do today. This is then linked to endemic problems of childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, antisocial behaviour, friendlessness and fear. Naturalist Laurence Rose, who first highlighted the Dictionary issue and also spearheaded the letter writing campaign, called the new OJD “a lexicography for the increasingly interior, solitary and urbanised world (today’s children) inhabit rather than enthused with words to describe a world they have yet to explore.”
The OUP editors’ responses to these accusations seem rather limp and pedantic. “All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines in determining which words (can) be included in each dictionary, based on several criteria: acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age; corpus analysis; acknowledging commonly misspelled or misused words; and taking curriculum requirements into account.” Former poet laureate Andrew Motion remains unconvinced: “Their defence — that lots of children have no experience of the countryside — is ridiculous. Dictionaries exist to extend our knowledge, as much (or more) as they do to confirm what we already know or half-know.” He and the other signatories think that a dictionary like this “should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.”
As a naturalist and writer, Robert Macfarlane has spent years gathering words that describe the natural world. He was spurred on by the OJD debacle to collate what he calls his ‘word-hoard’ as a single volume entitled Landmarks, which was published in March this year. The book was partly inspired by a lexicography of Gaelic words from the Hebrides, that the author was gifted. This includes specific terms for, for example: “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight” (caochan); “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day” (rionnach maoim); and, a particular favourite, èit, which refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn.”
Macfarlane thought “…that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary — and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language,” and he set about collecting ‘place words’ from across the country and was thrilled at the response: “They came by letter, email and telephone, scribbled on postcards or yellowed pre-war foolscap, transcribed from cassette recordings of Suffolk longshoremen made half a century ago, or taken from hand-sketched maps of Highland hill country and island coastlines.
It is a lovely book to dip in and out of. You’ll learn that there is a specific term for the thin film of ice that forms on leaves, twigs and grass when a freeze follows a partial thaw causing the whole landscape to glitter (ammil); or that the onomatopoeic word for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight — at least in Devon — is zwer. But it’s not just about enjoying the innate poetry of the language. For Macfarlane and others, at the heart of the whole Dictionary debacle, is a vital issue: perhaps even the first issue, if the Bible is to be believed — the importance of naming. That in the act of naming something — of knowing the right word for something — our relationship to that thing is fundamentally changed. Language allows us to see differently. Once he learned that the gap in a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal was called a ‘smeuse’, Macfarlane started to notice smeuses more often. The other day, a friend was telling me about how the rhynes on her father’s farm were drained in order to make one, big tractor-friendly field. Now I know that on the Somerset levels, the land is scored with these traditional channels to help irrigate the land and lessen chances of flooding, I see them too.
Without words to name their natural surroundings, what chance is there that we — or our children — will care about them, will care for them, will protect them and fight against their disappearance? Just because they’re not listed in the OJD , will buttercups vanish? Obviously not (and anyway, they’re there in OUP’s other dictionaries). But if you don’t know that the furry flowering spike of a willow is called a catkin, it’s just another bit of miscellaneous tree — it slips from the specific to the generic, it kind of goes out of focus, becoming something we notice only in our peripheral vision. “To use language well is to use it particularly,” says Macfarlane, “precision of utterance as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention.”
In today’s world, where attention deficit particularly among children has reached epidemic proportions, we can use all the attention excess we can get.
First published in The Hindu BLInk supplement, June 12, 2015
* Following the publication of this article, this statement was received from Oxford University Press, which clarifies that the edition of their Junior Dictionary under discussion was published several years ago. It was recently reprinted – with no other editorial changes. My apologies for the error.
“Our children’s dictionaries provide a vital tool for helping children to improve their literacy skills and develop a passion for language.
In the last 40 years our range of children’s dictionaries has increased from two to 17, and as such the total number of words – including those about nature – has significantly increased across the range.
The last change to the content of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was in 2008, and it still includes a large numbers of words focusing on the natural world.
Our dictionaries are developed through a rigorous research programme, analysing how children are currently using language. They also reflect the language that children are encouraged to use in the classroom, as required by the national curriculum. This ensures they remain relevant and beneficial for children’s education.”