A friend just passed me an article about Oxford Dictionary’s decision to replace “nature words” with “technology words” to save space in their Junior Oxford Dictionary. So, if a word-curious adolescent wanted to look what a lark or a lobster was, or to understand the difference between alfalfa, hay, and straw, they could no longer find it in the dictionary. Gone are acorn, buttercup, elm, and magpie. No more ferns or mosses or hamsters and ferrets to build nests out of them. Now there is broadband; blackberry has been replaced with Blackberry.
Margaret Atwood and 27 other writers co-authored a letter to the dictionary, claiming that children should be encouraged to play outdoors because it helps their mental and physical health:
“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 behaviour, 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.
“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’ll last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ 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.”
A few years ago, when I was living in Spokane, many children were getting Rickets, a bone-formation disease caused by prolonged lack of vitamin D. Usually, your body takes in vitamin D while you are out in the sun—a fair-skinned only needs about a fifteen minutes a day. Even many of the adults I knew were on vitamin D prescriptions to make up for their deficiency.
While I’m usually not sold the idea of the dictionary being used as a prescriptive measure for our culture—telling us what our culture needs to be—rather than a descriptive reference—telling us what words people are using at a certain time—I could be persuaded to believe that a children’s dictionary has a slightly different role in its instruction.
In a recent podcast, Lexicon Valley hosts Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo interviewed the editors at various dictionaries about their “Word of the Year” selections for 2015. Oxford University Press selected the emoji “face with tears of joy,” because they view the Word of the Year selection as an opportunity to focus on language change, here highlighting pictographs as an adjunct to English. Merriam Webster on the other hand, chose “–ism.” The editor at MW, Peter Sokolowski, said that they choose the Word of the Year based by the number of lookups and this year words ending with –ism (socialism, racism, fascism, feminism) had the most lookups.
One of the perennial words with the most searches, though, is “love.”
Sokolowski noted, “This tells us something about why people go to the dictionary. They’re going not just for the lexical piece, for the spelling of the etymology of the word, but the beginning of reflection, for a philosophical conversation.”
Should that kind of (soul-searching) conversation have the opportunity to promote reflection on nature as well?
An article by George Monibot in the Guardian layers another argument on the problem of our disappearing outdoor play and its related vocabulary:
“A new report shows that the UK has lost 20% of its breeding birds since 1966: once common species such as willow tits, lesser spotted woodpeckers and turtle doves have all but collapsed; even house sparrows have fallen by two thirds. Ash dieback is just one of many terrifying plant diseases, mostly spread by trade. They now threaten our oaks, pines and chestnuts.
“So where are the marches, the occupations, the urgent demands for change? While the surveys show that the great majority would like to see the living planet protected, few are prepared to take action. This, I think, reflects a second environmental crisis: the removal of children from the natural world. The young people we might have expected to lead the defence of nature have less and less to do with it. […] The fact that at least half the published articles on ash dieback have been illustrated with photos of beeches, sycamores or oaks seems to me to be highly suggestive.”
It would seem that the countryside, and our ability to fight for it, grows ever distant when its lexicon is replaced with blog, chat room, MP3, and hashtag.
Tomorrow we will awake surrounded by a forgotten place: the outdoors.