January 14, 2015

“Mummy, what’s a hamster?”



Mine was called Hammy. Hammy the hamster.

A number of prominent writers have penned an open letter to Oxford University Press to express their unease after learning of longterm changes made to inclusions in the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

Writers including Margaret Atwood, Robert Macfarlane and Sir Andrew Motion were “profoundly alarmed” to discover that, since 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has “systematically been stripped of many words associated with nature and the countryside”. To add insult to injury, many of these words have been removed to make space for words relating to technology and those “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

OUP defended the changes, telling 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.

According to the publisher, the Oxford Junior Dictionary “is very much an introduction to language” aimed at seven-year-olds and those in Key Stage 2 at school. OUP is completely right that dictionaries should reflect language as it is really used by this age range. So it’s confusing when one actually sees the words that have been taken out and replaced.

Over at naturemusicpoetry.com, the site’s editor Laurence Rose has been compiling a list of these “lost” words. Quite apart from specialist vocabulary that belongs to an idyllic pastoral English childhood that no longer exists in our gritty, urban world of machines and coding, many commonplace words have been removed. They include apricot, mint, carol, holly and bacon. Surely you don’t have to live in the middle of a field to require the use of mint in your vocabulary. It’s the flavour of toothpaste and chewing gum, if nothing else.

What’s truly boggling is the removal of words handy to children specifically, words that you only really use in childhood before forgetting about them altogether. I’m talking about words that relate to pets. To the pets that you want but you aren’t allowed to have. Ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, poodle, spaniel, piglet. All gone. For the more ambitious kids (what can I say, I dreamt big) cheetah, leopard and panther are also no longer accessible.

As well as those tech words that are easy to attach to the downfall of culture and civilisation like chatroom, broadband and blog, other sample words that have replaced those above include Euro, block graph, analogue and square number. It’s impossible that a seven year old would require the use of block graph before hamster, analogue before goldfish. It’s too ironic that one of the new additions is common sense. I wonder what it replaced.

But read enough of the newly-added words and the editorial decisions show themselves to be misguided, biased, even political. Consider, for example, how this string of entries reads: EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic. Aside from being truly depressing, this is the world of officialdom, bureaucracy and most potently, the establishment. With just those words a seven-year-old could rustle up a pretty convincing report for the EU that defended free markets, condemned a backwards African government and privileged Western power and global influence, before hopping on their private jet and going bungee jumping in Nepal.

The signatories of the letter say their concern is “not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters”. Instead, they worry of the increasing disconnect between children’s lives and natural play and interaction with the outdoors, which, figures show, contributes to a decline in children’s wellbeing.

But as writers they know that the issue runs even deeper than that. As Robert Macfarlane puts it, “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.”


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.