Removal Of Nature Words From Children's Dictionary Sparks Outrage

Dozens of prominent writers, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo, have expressed "profound alarm" in light of the Oxford University Press's decision to drop a number of words associated with nature and the countryside from its children's dictionary.

Since 2007, the Oxford University Press has removed the names of at least 30 species of important plants and animals from its Junior dictionary, including "blackberries," "buttercup," "minnows," and "acorns," while also dropping many words connected with farming and food. At the same time, modern words have been added, including "analogue," broadband," and "cut-and-paste."

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In an open letter to the Oxford University Press, the writers "plead that the next edition sees the reinstatement of words" cut over the past seven years.

"We base this plea on two considerations," they write. "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," adding that "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 authors go on to argue that there's a proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children's wellbeing.

"Many [of these words are] highly symbolic of our cultural ties with the land, its wildlife and produce," they write. "This is what the National Trust says in their Natural Childhood campaign: Every child should have the right to connect with nature. To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that'll last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you're 11 ¾ includes many for which the OJD once had words, but no longer: like playing conkers, picking blackberries, various trees to climb, minnows to catch in a net and so on."

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Here's how a spokesperson for the Oxford University Press responded, as reported by The Guardian:

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.

The Oxford Junior Dictionary is very much an introduction to language. It includes around 400 words related to nature including badger, bird, caterpillar, daffodil, feather, hedgehog, invertebrate, ladybird, ocean, python, sunflower, tadpole, vegetation, and zebra. Many words that do not appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary are included in the Oxford Primary Dictionary; a more comprehensive dictionary designed to see students through to age 11. Words included in this title include mistletoe, gerbil, acorn, goldfish, guinea pig, dandelion, starling, fern, willow, conifer, heather, buttercup, sycamore, holly, ivy, and conker.

We have no firm plans to publish a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary at this stage. However, we welcome feedback on all our dictionaries and feed this into the editorial process.

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The authors of the open letter have a decidedly different opinion, who write:

We recognise 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. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.

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Read more at The Guardian.

Related: Ecologist E. O. Wilson explains why you likely have an acute case of biophilia

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Top image: Chepko Danil Vitalevich/Shutterstock

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