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Going, going, gone …

otterRegular followers of my blog will know that I am concerned about words fading out of the English language. So imagine my dismay when I read recently that the Oxford University Press has expunged several words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. And no, the deleted words are not out of use or particularly outdated, they are just apparently not ‘relevant to a modern day childhood’. The missing words include acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, kingfisher, otter and even conker. And the words taking their place in the new edition include broadband, blog, bullet point and, wait for it, celebrity!

It worries me that so many of the excluded words refer to our countryside, our fauna and flora. Do we really want to educate the next generation to give priority to cut-and-paste, voicemail and chatroom, over pasture, cowslip and cygnet?

Of course it is not just the younger generation who are at risk of losing vocabulary. Robert Macfarlane, the author of the fascinating book, Landmarks, believes that our language has the power to shape our sense of place. Robert Macfarlane has been on a eight year quest to find lost, or nearly lost, words pertaining to the natural world. So he gives us ammil – a Devon term for that thin film of winter ice that lacquers leaves and twigs and makes the whole landscape glitter; zwer – an Exmoor term for a the sound of partridges taking flight; and the English dialect word, smeuse, for the hole under a hedge made by the regular passing of small animals. Is the loss of these words a sign that we are losing our connection with the natural world? Certainly we are losing our ability to describe it.

Once we were able to rely on poets to coin new words, Gerard Manley Hopkins used shivelight for the lances of sunlight that penetrate the canopy of a wood, and John Clare invented crizzle for the light freezing of a pond.

As we have already lost so many words, perhaps the onus is on us writers to invent more. Or maybe we should just borrow them from other languages. It wouldn’t be the first time. Gaston Dorren, author of the language-lovers book, Lingo, points out that English has been borrowing foreign words for years.

Spanish has for example given us cork, guitar, chocolate and barbeque – where would we be without those? Czech gave us robot, German, quartz, glitz and (perhaps not quite so welcome) blitz. Dutch has given us cruise, coleslaw and smuggler.

Not only does Gaston Dorren tell us the words we have already taken, he also suggests others we could usefully steal – one of his favourites being the German, Gönnen, the exact opposite of envy, to be gladdened by someone’s good fortune. It existed in old English, but it seems we have lost the habit!

Maybe it is time to get some of the old words back, and the old habits, including our powers of observation. So next time you are relishing your own good fortune in taking a walk through the British countryside, keep a look out and see if you can spot a smeuse

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33 thoughts on “Going, going, gone …

  1. Pingback: St Helena and other news – an update from Helen Carey (and an outstanding opportunity) | themarcistagenda

  2. Oh no, bluebell and kingfisher are must-haves if kids are going to read Hopkins! I think I’ll have to adopt gönnen.

  3. Pingback: Going, going, gone … | JEAN COLLEN ON WORDPRESS

  4. Thank you for this interesting article. I’m very sorry indeed to hear of the words that have been expunged from the OUP junior dictionary. It suggests that the editors of the dictionary assume that children are not going outdoors to play or to pick bluebells any more but are glued to their computers reading about “so-called” celebrities. Very sad indeed!

  5. Interesting and sad. I think that we probably are losing our connection with nature as people stare at their phones oblivious to the world around them. All words should be included but I guess the Oxford dictionary deciders update to what is required and certainly children are encouraged to use computers and the like and need to know what these terms mean. If they can’t fit in all words it comes down to choice and a belief as to what the child needs a definition of more. It is up to us as parents, grandparents and writers to use these words, fill our children with the wonder of the natural and create a state where again these words need to be in the dictionary. When I will be really scared will be when the words are removed from other dictionaries. The death of a word is a sad occurrence. One of my favourite words is hobbledehoy. I use it where ever possible but I’ve only seen it used once in print.
    A great post Helen.

  6. Today’s children don’t see bluebells, I don’t imagine, but certainly they do acorns, dandelions and otters, the latter on television or in zoos. What are these dim gentle(wo)men thinking? And “bullet point” is a higher-priority, more frequently-encountered phrase? At the Junior level?!

    Good grief. Looking at the nature of the eliminated versus added choices: Are 1984’s newspeak folk in charge now?

  7. That list of deleted words from the Junior Oxford Dictionary is very disturbing! Flowers, birds and mammals are no longer a part of a child’s vocabulary?

  8. Really interesting post with some sad news. I agree with you that it’s a great shame to lose words from nature. Gonnen is a wonderful word, I wonder if we can bring back this concept? I shall re-blog this on bkpyett.wordpress.com
    Thank you!

  9. This is disturbing to say the least! Some of those words are common and frequently used. Guess I would not choose the Junior Oxford Dictionary for my kids. You can always express your displeasure with a boycott.

  10. Reblogged this on betnew and commented:
    Reblogged. This is quite scary!

  11. If all of the wonderful words that describe nature disappear, where does that leave nature itself?! Of course, with all of the poison that we are pouring out into nature causing the disappearance of necessary plants and animals, maybe the folks that decide the words that are to be left out of the dictionaries know something that they aren’t telling the rest of us. Yet.

  12. Angie on said:

    Reblogged this on Love, Laughter, and Life and commented:
    Very good reasons to use wonderful words when we write.

  13. Hmm. I guess there are two sides to this- English is a mixture of languages, so many of our words are not borrowed, they are just part of the mix, which is constantly evolving. But yes, the words you cite as being removed are important. It shows not only that kids don’t know flowers, they are not reading much poetry or viewing art which often features blossoms. So they are missing out on a lot of what makes England such a wonderful place.

  14. What the OED has done is completely unacceptable. Bluebell? Dandelion? Otter? What are they playing at? I’m horrified, utterly horrified.

  15. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    All parents and lovers of the English language need to read this post.. Apparently the Oxford University Press is removing certain words from the junior dictionary as no longer relevant to modern day childhood. These words include adder, bluebell and otter amongst others.. They are to be replaced with Broadband, blog, bullet point and celebrity… I have one word for them.. and they won’t let that one in the dictionary either! Great share Helen Carey – I suggest you read the article in full.

  16. Maria on said:

    Oh no, the removal of those words is ridiculous. It’s not as if ‘dandelions’ are an incredibly rare species, even inner city kids will have seen them (I wonder if they still make that joke about how picking them makes you wet yourself… how hilarious we used to find that!). Loving the words you flagged up.. not heard of them before but ammil and shivelight are gorgeous!

  17. An interesting post which I certainly empathise with.
    When I read what words the OUP have expunged I shook my head in dismay. By all means include the new words but not at the expense of the old ones.
    Sadly I find myself asking what next… xx

  18. Pingback: Going, going, gone … | themarcistagenda

  19. This is brilliant, thank you! I am full of Gonnen for you and your work!

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