My previous post cautioned parents on notional children’s classics.

This post, also inspired by the 11-17 April 2015 issue of the Radio Times, discusses children’s dictionaries, specifically the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

Having recovered from the UK’s Book Trust salami slicing of children’s books, I had hoped for lighter fare. Then, I ran across the article ‘Wild words’ (pp. 146-147) by Robert Macfarlane, Cambridge Fellow and author of a new book Landmarks, which explores the richness of British nature terminology.

Macfarlane tells us that the Oxford Junior Dictionary no longer contains the words for commonly found flora and fauna, including acorn, adder, ash, beech, ivy, kingfisher, lark and too many others to list here (p. 147).

He cites the then-editor of the dictionary, Vineeta Gupta, who said that children do not need these words so much anymore as we are living in a technological society, not a rural one.

A Daily Telegraph article from 2008 has her quote in full. She had also dropped words relating to Christianity (emphases mine):

When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed. We are also much more multicultural. People don’t go to Church as often as before. Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism, which is why some words such as “Pentecost” or “Whitsun” would have been in 20 years ago but not now.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Nor could mother-of-four Lisa Saunders from Northern Ireland who, the Telegraph says:

painstakingly compared entries from the junior dictionaries, aimed at children aged seven or over, dating from 1978, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007, said she was “horrified” by the vast number of words that have been removed, most since 2003.

“The Christian faith still has a strong following,” she said. “To eradicate so many words associated with the Christianity will have a big effect on the numerous primary schools who use it.”

Ms Saunders realised words were being removed when she was helping her son with his homework and discovered that “moss” and “fern”, which were in editions up until 2003, were no longer listed.

“I decide to take a closer look and compare the new version to the other editions,” said the mother of four from Co Down, Northern Ireland. “I was completely horrified by the vast number of words which have been removed. We know that language moves on and we can’t be fuddy-duddy about it but you don’t cull hundreds of important words in order to get in a different set of ICT words.”

Message to Oxford Dictionaries staff: Britain has plenty of mosses, ferns, acorns, kingfishers and tons of ivy, never mind the rest of the plants and animals named by the words you omitted. Then there is the matter of Christianity (deleted words emboldened in the next sentence). We still have plenty of vicars; we still celebrate Pentecost which some of us call Whitsun; we go to churches named after saints; some of us were taught by nuns and nearly every church or chapel service includes a psalm. Furthermore, most children today will already know the meanings of the new IT-friendly words: blog, cut and paste, MP3 player and voice mail, among others.

In 2009, Wildlife Promise picked Oxford University Press (OUP) up on the omission of so many words describing the natural world. They tell us that OUP has no intention of reinstating them:

Oxford University Press released an official statement: The dictionary “is not designed for children to use as they progress higher up the school years, and should be regarded as an introduction to language and the practice of using dictionaries.” The words included in it, the statement continues, are selected based on the “language children will commonly come across at home and at school.” The books also must include words “covering the main religious faiths” and must now pay special attention to computer-related words. These concerns, says the company, must be balanced with keeping the book small enough to be accessible for children between the ages of 8 and 11.

Digging around, I found more people who, happily, are just as upset about the nature omissions, although not the Christian terms. Even in 2015, they are asking OUP to reinstate the words for flora and fauna which are commonly seen not only in Britain but elsewhere in the world.

Authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo are two of 28 writers who addressed an open letter to OUP in January 2015:

“We base this plea on two considerations. Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history,” reads the letter.

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.”

“There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s well-being,” they write, adding that obesity and anti-social behaviour are some consequences.

“We recognize the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However, it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today.”

Laurence Rose of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told Huffington Post Canada that, when he complained about the omission of names for still-common birds, the OUP responded as follows (summarised):

All of the words that were reportedly removed from the 2007 version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, geared towards seven-year-old readers, are included in the Primary Dictionary, intended for those eight years old and up, according to the statement.

Odd that, having one dictionary for seven-year-olds and another for eight-year-olds. However, that is one solution: buy the Primary Dictionary rather than the Junior edition.

Back to Robert Macfarlane now. His book Landmarks introduces all of us to words we’ve probably not heard of before from all British dialects. The Guardian‘s review says:

Is there another book – fiction or nonfiction – so generous in its nature, that has in its very structure the matrices of other writing and study and poetry fixed intricately into its threads and lines like webs within webs or currents within streams within rivers within seas? Landmarks may be single-minded in its pursuit of the exact, the particular, but in its articulation it sounds a chord of voices – of communities, writers, literatures – that may include the reader’s own.

This comes from the idea of placing at the end of every section a swath of words cut and lifted from dictionaries and phrase books, from common usage, idiolect, slang and poetry. Words for stones and rubble, chucky, clitter, and fedspar; for ice, pipkrares and shuckle; for hill and gully and livestock and branches and leaves and weathers and, in “Ways of Walking”, for a certain kind of mud – muxy rout and slunk. These glossaries are both summaries and a way ahead, where words are like “migrant birds, arriving from distant places… or strangers let into the home”, that they may enliven us with their meanings and stories and give back so much that has been culled.

The Telegraph says:

The languages of forestry, mountaineering, archaeology and geology mix with the coinages of poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins is a prominent contributor: his “wimpling”, the action of wind on a bird’s wing, is joined by “shadowtackle”, shifting patterns of light and shade on woodland floors, caused, Macfarlane says, “by the light filtering-action of the canopy in the wind”.

Landmarks presents hundreds of words and phrases for weather and natural phenomena, and for working and playing in the countryside. Suppose you jump into a lake or pond and muck about. If you are in Shetland you are “bumbelling”. In other parts of Scotland you are “dooking”, in Galloway you are “jabblin” or “puddling”, in Northern Ireland you “skite”, and in Kent you “squashle”.

If few readers are likely to memorise 50 terms related to peat and turf, none will forget that in North Yorkshire steams rising from a wet moor under bright sun are called “summer geese”. Macfarlane is beguiled by a fiery light produced by sun on hoar frost, called an “ammil”, at least in Devon, but his purpose is anything but whimsical. “We have become experts in analysing what nature can do for us, but lack a language for what it can do to us,” he writes.

In the Radio Times, Macfarlane elaborates on ammil, which is the

thin glittering film of ice that lacquers leaves and twigs when freeze follows thaw

and the Shetlandic term pirr means

a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water

whereas, to someone from Exmoor, zwer is

the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight

whilst, in Sussex, smeuse is

the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.

What a lovely book written by not only a naturalist but also someone who truly loves the English language.

It’s reassuring to know in the natural world ‘there’s a name for that’.

Yes, darling, it’s a buttercup. And that, over there, is a bluebell.

Advertisements