Reading a review of Landmarks, by Robert Macfalane, by the excellent essayist Alan Jacobs, I came across a lexical controversy I had forgotten. Jacobs who is an expert in words and reading, brought it back to mind. By the way when I say an "expert in words and reading" I am not being merely rhetorical or spouting ill-considered exaggeration, as if the same could not be said of every good writer. Alan Jacobs has written important work on A Theology of Reading, and The Distracted Reader, as well as numerous volumes of essays known for their literary range, psychological astuteness, theological and philosophical awareness and, as important as each of these, their ability to educate both intellect and heart.
Here is an extract from the review:
"Near the outset of Landmarks, Macfarlane describes a controversy that emerged only at the beginning of 2015, though it centered on something that happened in 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary appeared:
A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.
A representative of the press explained the ratonale for this decision: " 'When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance … that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed." A number of writers, including Macfarlane, protested this change, and one of them, the poet Andrew Motion, commented with some heat: "Their defence—that lots of children have no experience of the countryside—is ridiculous. Dictionaries exist to extend our knowledge, as much (or more) as they do to confirm what we already know or half-know."
Jacobs goes on to point out that the important issue at stake isn't the retention of the words in the dictionary, but the loss of knowledge, experience and awareness that underlies the redundancy and then excision of words from the language of ordinary experience. My reasons for thinking more about this go deeper still. The learning of language, and the associated tasks of education, interpretation, writing and communication, are each dependent on the availability and currency of words. If words are removed from use then the world is reconfigured around their absence, and shaped into the future by the presence, and often the aggressive presence, of new words, many of them related, as indicated in the quote above, to technology and IT.
It is the work of people like Robert MacFarlane, Roger Deakin, Nan Shepherd, three of the best British nature writers of the past century, to chronicle the surrounding natural world, to conserve the richness of language and naming, to describe what others may not have the opportunity or inclination to see, and thus to keep our semantic currency rich in traditions local and parochial, and therefore capable of maintaining the richly woven fabric of description and meaning that such humane writing preserves. The idea that we could ever think, let alone make lexical and publishing policy of key reference texts, on the assumption that a child does not need a description of an acorn because they may never see one or come across the word, is one that should alert a culture awash with technologisms to the dehumanising effects of language culling.