Lost Words, Lost Creatures: Nature Disappearing From Dictionary

Words are a reflection of society.
Removing them from our books, removes them from our minds.
Removing them from our minds removes them from our experience.
In so doing we lose a piece of ourselves ~ Debra Ellis

In the beginning was the Word," reads the Christian Gospel according to John -- just one example of how the primal creative import of words is acknowledged by religions and cultures all over the world. Words and names, both spoken and written, are the building blocks not only of self but of history and human society.


Since 2007 Oxford University Press has updated its prestigious, widely used Junior Dictionary (which has a limit of 10,000 terms) by getting rid of the names of some 30 kinds of plants and animals central to our relationship with nature -- words like acorn, beaver, beech, blackberry, boar, cheetah, clover, fern, ferret, heron, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, otter, panther, porpoise, willow and raven. In their place are new words deemed more worthy of page space: celebrity, MP3 player, analogue, broadband.

Words removed from the new version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

Adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, dwarf, elf, ferret, gerbil, goblin, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, holly, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mistletoe, monarch, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

bluebellAcorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

Words added:

Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue.

Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro.

Apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify, chronological, block graph.

A group of prominent authors, including Margaret Atwood, has publicly requested that the removed words be reinstated in future editions.

Open Letter

Oxford University Press
12 January 2015

Reconnecting kids with nature is vital, and needs cultural leadership
We the undersigned are profoundly alarmed to learn that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has systematically been stripped of many words associated with nature and the countryside. We write to plead that the next edition sees the reinstatement of words cut since 2007.

We base this plea on two considerations. 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 unraveled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem. This is not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters. There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s well-being.

Compared with a generation ago, when 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while another 40% never play anywhere outdoors. Ever. Obesity, anti-social behavior, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences. The physical fitness of children is declining by 9% per decade, according to Public Health England.

For the first time ever, children’s life expectancy is lower than that of their parents –us.

When, in 2007, the OJD made the changes, this connection was understood, but less well publicized than now. The research evidence showing the links between natural play and well-being; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.

We recognize 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 focused on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.

In all, the names for thirty species of common or important British plants and animals have been removed - such as acorn and bluebell - along with many words connected with farming and food. Many are highly symbolic of our cultural ties with the land, its wildlife and produce.

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 will last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ 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.

The RSPB has commissioned a great deal of research on this. Among many findings is the fact that outdoor activity in nature appears to improve symptoms of ADHD in children by 30% compared with urban outdoor activities and 300% compared with the indoor environment.

It is no surprise that these and other organizations, including the NHS and Play England, Play Scotland and Play Wales have come together to create The Wild Network dedicated to reconnecting children and their families to nature – and to each other.

Will the removal of these words from the OJD ruin lives? Probably not. But as a symptom of a widely acknowledged problem that is ruining lives, this omission becomes a major issue.

The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.

We believe that a deliberate and publicized decision to restore some of the most important nature words would be a tremendous cultural signal and message of support for natural childhood, and we ask you to take that opportunity,and if necessary, bring forward the next edition of the OJD in order to do so.

Margaret Atwood; Author
Simon Barnes; Author and journalist
Terence Blacker; Writer and songwriter
Mark Cocker; Author and naturalist
Miriam Darlington; Author
Nicola Davies; Children’s author
Paul Farley; Poet, writer and broadcaster
Graeme Gibson; Novelist
Melissa Harrison; Writer
Tony Juniper; Writer and ecologist
Richard Kerridge; Nature writer
Gwyneth Lewis; Former Welsh Poet Laureate
Sir John Lister-Kaye; Naturalist and author
Richard Mabey; Writer and naturalist
Robert Macfarlane; Writer and academic
Helen Macdonald; Writer, illustrator and historian
Sara Maitland; Writer
Mike McCarthy; Nature writer
Hilary McKay; Children’s writer
Andrew McNeillie; Academic, former OUP Literature Editor
Sara Mohr-Pietsch; Broadcaster
Michael Morpurgo; Author, former Children’s Laureate
Jackie Morris; Children’s book illustrator
Stephen Moss; Naturalist; author and TV producer
Sir Andrew Motion; Former Poet Laureate
Ruth Padel; Poet and conservationist
Jim Perrin; Travel writer
Katrina Porteous; Poet, historian and broadcaster

For correspondence:

Laurence Rose