Catkins are out, committees are in: the Oxford Junior Dictionary

A stellar group of authors, including CPRE’s President, Sir Andrew Motion, have written a letter to the Oxford University Press protesting about the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s axing of words relating to the natural world. It has replaced them with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

This is an old story, but a good cause. There is much more on the issue on Laurence Rose’s blog, Here is the Countryman column I wrote about it in January 2009. And just to be fair to the OUP, it gets it right with the wonderful Save Pudding Wood! in the Biff and Chip series.

I have just caught up with the furore that broke out shortly before Christmas over the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.  This is an old story, but bear with me.  The book itself was published in 2007 and provoked no public excitement until a seven year old schoolboy in County Down sat down to do his homework and could not find definitions for the words ‘moss’ and ‘fern’.

His mother then compared six editions of the dictionary since the 1970s and found that words relating to religion, history and nature had been stripped out and replaced by newer words to do with the internet and celebrity.

The loss of sin and the devil caused some controversy, but it is probably nature and countryside words that have suffered most.

So, out go acorn, adder, ash, beech, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bray, bridle, brook, bullock, buttercup…  Need I go on?  Oh, alright then, just a little more poetry: catkin, chestnut, conker, county, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, drake, ferret, gorse, heather, holly, ivy, kingfisher, lark, magpie, minnow, pasture, piglet, poppy, poultry, primrose, raven, sheaf, starling, stoat, sycamore, thrush, weasel, wren and willow.

Endangered and vandalism are in.  So are MP3 player, blog, chatroom and, most depressing, committee.

For Henry Porter in the Observer, the replacement by abstract words of ‘the plain, euphonious vocabulary of the natural world, words which do not simply label an object but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it’, shows that ‘we have moved from a roaming childhood to one lived indoors’.

This seems borne out by the by the publisher’s explanation: ‘When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers.  That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons.’

Well, as children’s author Philip Pullman has written, ‘every child needs to run` around and engage with the natural world and get dirty hands and scraped knees, it’s good for them.  Instead of that we see more and more children enslaved by screens of one kind and another, their eyes glazed, their muscles slack, their very instincts palsied.  It may not be the job of the dictionary-makers to provide children with a healthy environment, but they should certainly not deprive them of the language to talk or read about it.’  He declared his intention to carry on using words that ‘taste sharp and pungent and rich and earthy… when I write stories for these ill-nourished children to read’.

Good for him.

4 Responses to “Catkins are out, committees are in: the Oxford Junior Dictionary”

  1. 1 A. Crampin January 15, 2015 at 7:38 am

    Catkins should not be coming out in January, but they are. How will these children ever be alerted to climate change, if they have no words to describe the local signals. They will not look and they will not see,

  2. 2 Arthur Franks January 15, 2015 at 9:02 am

    I read about this and thought it was a joke! What is wrong with all of these words they are still relevant to childhood. Children are still expected to write about nature and thumbing through a dictionary teaches far more about language and grammar than typing a word into a search engine

  3. 3 andrew needham January 16, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Will promote this in our Spring magazine in Cheshire.

    ‘every child needs to run` around and engage with the natural world and get dirty hands and scraped knees, it’s good for them. Instead of that we see more and more children enslaved by screens of one kind and another,

  4. 4 Mary Tapissier April 2, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    I am horrified by this and mortified that I mssed it (my children are grown ups)

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