Geologic Column: Newspeak for kids

by Ward Chesworth
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Credit: Bruce Mars from Pexels

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone!” – Robert Macfarlane, "The Lost Words"

“Nature” is our shorthand term for the sun-powered biosphere of planet Earth. We absolutely depend upon it for whatever shot at life, liberty and happiness we may have. Sadly, we are losing touch with this vital support as we become a predominantly urban- and suburban-dwelling species.

In his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv argues that humans, particularly kids, who sit for most of the day in front of a screen rather than playing outdoors, no longer experience nature firsthand. Louv writes that this places a child’s physical and mental well-being at considerable risk and has invented the phrase “nature deficit disorder” for the condition. Perhaps he believes that if he makes it sound like a disease, people will sit up and take action. Those “sick” with the disorder may suspect that the ever-inventive pharmaceutical companies will develop some “cure.”

For lovers of words and nature, the news gets direr and direr (as Lewis Carroll nearly said). The editors of dictionaries for children are culling words that describe the natural world to make room for words from the brave new digital world. The rational part of me can see the need for this, no matter what my emotions say. In the definitive word-hoard of the language — the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — more than 170,000 words are defined. Currently, with quotations and detailed etymologies, the OED already fills 20 volumes in hard copy, a bit much to lug to school each day, which is why handy junior editions are published. These are limited to about 30,000 words, with each word restricted to a short, simple definition, so a major cull from the full menu is required.

But it’s not simply a matter of choosing words from existing comprehensive dictionaries in the interests of portability. Modern kids live in a world very different from the world in which their parents grew up. Everything is in constant flux, including language; the word-hoard continues to grow, and room must be accorded to words not found in previous editions. So, to make room, a second kind of cull takes place from time to time, perpetrated by editors and their assistants who remove tranches of words once deemed part of any educated person’s repertoire, but which are now consigned to the scrapheap of the near-obsolete. Based on recent consignments, it looks as if the world of nature is in the line of fire.

The publishers of the Oxford Junior Dictionary have been clear about their plans. Despite public outcry, since 2007, they have culled or planned to cull: beaver, boar and bullock; beetroot, blackberry and bluebell; chestnut, clover and crocus; lark, leopard and lobster; pansy, parsnip and poppy; poodle, porcupine and porpoise, among many others. Replacements include: blog, broadband, voicemail, attachment and chatroom from the digital world, and words such as biodegradable, endangered, and food chain, from the world of “anthropic” or “new” nature.

We already live in a diminished world as far as language is concerned. Take the poetic names for the wild plants of the countryside recorded by Edward Thomas in a poem about the hairy man of folklore called Lob Lie-by-the-Fire. Give him a saucer of milk and a comfortable hearthrug to rest on, and he’ll clean and tidy your house. Here’s a sample of the names Lob supposedly invented:

Calling the wild cherry tree the merry tree, The rose campion Bridget-in-her-bravery; And in a tender mood he, as I guess, Christened one flower Love-in-idleness, And while he walked from Exeter to Leeds One April called all cuckoo-flowers Milkmaids. From him old herbal Gerard learnt, as a boy, To name wild clematis the Traveller’s-joy.

This kind of richness of language is now living on life support, if it’s not already dead. Now, outdoor words are to be expunged from dictionaries for juniors. It’s the kind of process described in Orwell’s “1984,” where words deemed inappropriate in Big Brother’s totalitarian regime, from the Declaration of Independence, for example, were weeded out of the dictionary and ultimately from common speech. That’s rather more extreme than the plans of the dictionary publishers, I know, but the parallel is disturbing all the same. You can’t love what you don’t know, and the first step to knowing something is to put a name to it. By removing words such as acorn, holly, ivy, mistletoe, moss, otter and starling from their dictionaries, we are not encouraging a love of nature in the minds of the young. And if that love of nature isn’t encouraged, how can we expect them to fight for it in the future?

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