Here’s a nice bit of irony. What do the following have in common?
Bluebell, Fern, Hazel, Heather, Ivy, Lark, Willow, Ash.
Capitalising these words for much-loved wild flowers, plants, trees and bird gives a clue: they are 8 of the most popular children’s names. They are also among a slew of natural terms omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary since 2007, on the grounds that they are no longer relevant to children’s lives.
Together with beech, heron, kingfisher, buttercup, conker, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and a number of other words brimming with bright colours, textures and the sheer, quivering life of the natural world, they’ve had to be junked to make way for the dreariness of blog, broadband, bullet point, chatroom and voicemail. If you can come up with anything else that so encapsulates how stuffy, sedentary, and stale is the environment in which we expect our children to thrive, I’ll eat my HTML.
Oxford Dictionaries protest that making children aware of the natural world isn’t their job. Their task is to reflect the world that children now find themselves in, listing everyday, urban, familiar words, not ones that hark back to a more rural society. There simply isn’t room for both. They may have a point, but it set me wondering as to what a dictionary is actually for. Aren’t you supposed to use it to look up words you don’t know, not just the ones you do? Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Nina Bawden, Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell are widely read by children; all of the above words will appear in an amalgamation of their works. If it’s true that children’s lives are so impoverished they no longer know what a dandelion is, how can they find out?
Actually, the answer is simple. As well as the space-limited Junior Dictionary (10,000 words, age 7 – 9 years) OUP publishes the Oxford Primary Dictionary (30,000 words, 8 – 10 years), which (I’m told) still contains these ‘archaic’ natural terms. Why bother with two reference works that practically overlap each other in their age range? Forget the Junior Dictionary, OUP, and let children go straight from the Oxford First Dictionary (3,000 words, age 5 – 7) to the Primary one. Then everyone will be happy.
Meanwhile, I can’t think of many words more relevant to children’s lives than what they – or their friends – happen to be called. In a literary world defined by high tech, internet forums and social media, children themselves will have to act as a living dictionary of living things – rather like the outlaws in Fahrenheit 451 who become the books that no longer exist in print.
All we have to do is wait for otter, conker, beech and newt to start appearing on birth certificates.
Could be a long wait.