You could look it up? Not in the Oxford Junior Dictionary

You could look it up? Not in the Oxford Junior Dictionary

When you’re writing, do you depend on the Oxford English Dictionary? Many of the world’s finer writers in English do so. But schoolchildren may be less able to do so if recent news (and other commentary) is any indication.

In the Jan. 13, 2015, Guardian, Alison Flood wrote that “Oxford Junior Dictionary’s replacement of ‘natural’ words with 21st-century terms sparks outcry.”Read the whole story here.

The fuss is about a dictionary aimed at seven-year-olds, produced by one of the great names in lexicography, Oxford University Press. As Flood’s Guardian story put it, a group of “28 authors, including (Margaret) Atwood, (Andrew) Motion, Michael Morpurgo and Robert Macfarlane, warn that the decision to cut around 50 words connected with nature and the countryside from the 10,000-entry children’s dictionary, is ‘shocking and poorly considered’ in the light of the decline in outdoor play for today’s children. They are calling on publisher Oxford University Press to reverse its decision and, if necessary, to bring forward publication of a new edition of the dictionary to do so.

“The likes of almond, blackberry and crocus first made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity in the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007,” Flood notes.

But I think the words newly edited out seem to be sparking a bigger kerfluffle. Imagine reading a little child the book “The Wind in the Willows.” When the little one asks what a willow is, you could say “You could look it up!”

Well, the word “willow” won’t be in the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

“Acorn” won’t be there, either — so good luck to kids who want to track down what “haycorns” are in “The House at Pooh Corner.”

This seven-year-old audience should be a prime target for helping kids fall in love with words — not making them think that dictionaries aren’t much use. How are children going to think that any words are worth defending if they can’t even define them?

I looked at the Oxford University Press web site (with the link in the above quote) while researching this controversy, and found a slogan “Think dictionaries. Think Oxford.”

Think, Oxford. Indeed.

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Filed under: Words Worth Defending


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  • I'd take a crocus any day over a celebrity.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thanks! So would I -- and when I was seven, I would have wanted to know what a crocus is because I saw one. I wouldn't have cared about a celebrity; I suppose I'd have called him a famous person.

  • The substantive problem is that if 20 somethings think Wikipedia is authoritative, heaven knows what children are finding on their smartphones. Thus, the Oxford Junior Dictionary may be about as relevant as the print version of the Chicago Sun-Times.

    Another problem, with which I have been affected for about 15 years, is that my guides to style (at least when working) have been the squiggly lines on Microsoft Word and using the Thesaurus button on the Review tab. Usually the Thesaurus doesn't suggest anything better than the word I highlighted.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for a scary contribution, Jack. Children on smartphones are a scarier thought than words left out of dictionaries -- which is a big admission for me.

    I was delighted (at first, anyway) to see that OUP is still producing dictionaries for youngsters as books, not software. We all need to know how to use both kinds of guides, as your Microsoft comment shows, Jack. Personally, I find the squiggles nearly useless, except for catching typos.

  • Even a world of chatrooms and spreadsheets should have room for acorns, catkins and willows...

    Great post! Thank you for writing this.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thanks so much. I consider it a serious matter. (No pun intended, just this once.)

    Your use of "a world" grabs me -- that's just it. Dictionaries define the words of the world. I can remember arguing at school about whether something was a word, and the dictionary would settle it. If it wasn't a word, it didn't exist. That's what horrifies me about this case.

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