The Wild Network, the organisation set up by a range of bodies to promote stronger connections between children and nature, has adopted the #naturewords campaign, and are calling for nature words to be put back in the Oxford Junior Dictionary via an on-line petition. They have also produced this video to draw attention to the lost words:
Meanwhile, Penguin, the publishers of Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, are inviting twitter users to suggest their favourite nature words in celebration of the language of landscape.
Impromptu debate marks end of inaugural Festival week
Margaret Atwood piled more pressure on the Oxford University Press in a surprise appearance at the Norfolk Festival of Nature on Saturday. She gave an impromptu response to nature writer Mark Cocker’s address to festival goers, illustrated by a looped series of slides depicting nature words cut from the OJD. She proposed that to ensure that words like acorn, bluebell, poppy and otter were not dismissed as irrelevant in children’s lives, a new book be produced that celebrated those words instead.
Mark Cocker had been speaking on the final day of the inaugural week of the Festival. It is to be a year-round celebration of nature in the cultural life of the county, and of the country. Starting with a week of literary, musical, visual and scientific exploration hosted by Gresham’s School, Holt, Festival events will tour the county hosted by organisations as diverse as the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, National Trust, RSPB, Writers’ Centre Norwich and Waveney and Blyth Arts. The list of collaborators is expected to grow.
As Cocker spoke, his words were accompanied by a poignant exhibition of his own photographs, alphabetically cataloguing more than fifty lost nature words: acorn, adder, bluebell, catkin....kingfisher, lark, magpie, newt, otter, poppy....
He then invited renowned Canadian novelist and Atwood’s partner, Graeme Gibson to respond. His focus was on the need to ensure children grow up with a love and understanding of the countryside, before they become a generation of uncomprehending adults. Margaret Atwood then reminded us of the interconnectedness of nature and human wellbeing; our dependence on the health of the oceans; and the fact that birds, in travelling the globe, give us “an overview of the entire web of life.” Atwood, Gibson and Cocker are among 28 literary figures to have written to Oxford University Press in support of the #naturewords campaign.
They, along with Festival Director Dr. Al Cormack formed a panel to take questions. The first, from Jessica Lawrence, asked simply “which one word would you put back in the Junior Dictionary if you could?”
Atwood and Cocker both saw acorn as having the strongest symbolism – the seed of mighty oak trees, with their great cultural significance; Cormack felt it was unimaginable to omit Britain’s most popular flower, the bluebell. Graeme Gibson, however, declared himself unwilling even to consider the question; for him, it wasn’t about trading odd words, but (he explained to me afterwards) about safeguarding nature literacy.
Guardian and Sunday Times coverage
Meanwhile, Saturday’s Guardian Review devoted two and a half pages to Robert Macfarlane’s magpie-like gathering of those dialect words that enable a forensic specificity in describing nature. His article bemoans the impoverishment of nature vocabulary symptomised by the OJD word-cull. In today’s Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard interviews Macfarlane ahead of his forthcoming book Landmarks. Appleyard cites the “disastrously edited” Junior Dictionary as an example of “virtuality replacing real contact with real things.” Macfarlane tells him that some children are making and remaking our sense of place: “I want to send people out into the landscape and down into the dictionary.”
in which I meet Elaine and Vineeta of the OUP
It has been a week of wordplay. On Monday I took the day off from the day job to travel to Oxford, a city with a university press and a red kite hanging over it. I did a bit of train-spotting: that is, bird-spotting from the train, which makes me doubly nerdy and therefore entitled to look down upon those who merely spot trains from trains. It was red kite number twenty-two, the other twenty-one being spaced roughly evenly between Maidenhead and the dreaming spires.
I made me feel old, and excited that only by being old can I remember the effort it took to see my first red kite: a distant, fleeting view from across Tregaron Bog; and in the rain and through cheap binoculars. I can see that bird vividly as I write this. In a week’s holiday in Wales it was the only kite we saw, and I imagine my parents were as relieved as I was thrilled. Now that you can see kites alongside the 13:20 from Paddington to Oxford, or from the A1 anywhere between Stevenage and Newark, the excitement should have lessened by now. But no, I ritually record every RK sighting, each bird a monument to conservation success.
The return trip was in the dark, so I opened the New Statesman to read Lucy Purdy’s (a Twitter friend I know mainly as @loosepea) article about Dominick Tyler (whose Twitter handle @TheLandReader tells you all you need to know). That’s how I learned a new natureword: witch’s knickers – about which (ahem), more anon.
I was in Oxford at the invitation of OUP to talk about their Oxford Junior Dictionary. Regular readers will know why, and newcomers can read all about it here. I have been calling for the OUP to put back the valuable nature vocabulary they have removed to make way for some cyber-celeb chat (I’m coining here) that any dictionary needs to recognise at some stage.
The meeting started with a bit of wordplay: the OJD had not been amended, it had been repositioned it seems, which I understood meant it was a different dictionary with the same name. Whatever, you won’t find acorn, bluebell, conker or another 51 nature words once, but no longer, deemed fit for inclusion.
So we moved on, and into more encouraging territory. The lexicographical rigour that led to the nature word cull includes the ability to interrogate the corpus, a nice old Oxfordy word that refers to an enormous database of usage. It includes some 400,000 essays and stories written by children, along with the books written for them. I have been invited to suggest some words that can be more closely investigated, to see whether the corpus reveals an importance hitherto overlooked.
I don’t know whether to raise my hopes that this may lead to some nature words being reinstated when the OJD is next repositioned, but I gather that is a possible outcome of the process.
Elaine and Vineeta wanted to persuade me that their children’s book catalogue included some great nature literature. I wanted to persuade them that they didn’t need to. I was already persuaded. In fact, my big problem, as I explained, is that I think the OUP is great. It just made one mistake, in the routine course of its work; and that was to allow itself to be swept along by one of society’s most alarming trends: the decline in connectedness between children and nature. To be a symptom when I dearly want it to be part of the cure.
I was writing this piece when I heard the news that Oliver Rackham had died. I was in my first year at university when his Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape (1976) was published. From prehistoric times, through the Roman period and into the Middle Ages, Rackham describes the changing character, role and history of trees and woodland. It immediately became required reading for ecology students, but, as well as being a solid scholarly basis for understanding the British countryside, it is a masterpiece of nature writing.
A few years later his History of the Countryside set a new benchmark for communicating a passion for nature. Exploring the natural and man-made features of the land - fields, highways, hedgerows, fens, marshes, rivers, heaths, coasts, woods and wood pastures - he gives a fascinating account of the ways in which people, fauna, flora, climate, soils and other physical conditions have played their part in the shaping of the countryside.
The temptation to link the passing of a great authorial champion of of the countryside with the concerns of a new generation of writers is unavoidable.
And so back to Lucy Purdy and her conversation with Dominick Tyler. Tyler is part of that successor generation to Rackham’s – a writer with a photographer’s eye for detail and a forensic examination of the language of the countryside. His Landreader project is busily cataloguing words that are falling into disuse, or that served the minute distinctions most people no longer feel the need to make. But he also celebrates new coinings. As he and Lucy take a stroll through a stagnal London, he points out a pair of witch’s knickers – a term that he believes originated in Ireland; a plastic bag caught in the upper branches of a tree.
For Lucy there is a link with the #naturewords campaign. For me, one passage in particular leaps from her article: Not knowing the names of things makes them easier to discard. If our politicians know only “rain”, “silt” and “dredging”, the complexity of the flooding in Britain will never be understood.
Now there's a bullseye of an observation. It was precisely this lexical vacuum that enabled Eric Pickles to invent hydrological orthodoxy in the space of a TV soundbite. In the Somerset Levels it risked undoing years of relationship-building and ensuring that whatever long-term policies are established, they will probably be wrong.
It is a specific example of the fear expressed at the start of the campaign by Mark Cocker: “if we lose the language we will eventually lose the land itself”. Mark is another author who shares Oliver Rackham’s explorer’s zeal for land and language.
a lexicon of society's failure but also of our hope
It was an enthusiasm I also noticed in Elaine McQuade and Vineeta Gupta in Oxford. While I may not have succeeded - yet - in getting some of those words back in the OJD, we did talk about how OUP might champion nature literacy in other ways. We talked about using the literary festivals, about getting children's authors out and about to turn words into real-time connectivity. And we talked about talks. The dialogue continues.
Mark Cocker has an interesting new take. "We should see those 54 nature words as silent monuments around which to build a campaign" he suggests. "Why should OUP be deflected from their own lexical judgements just because we don’t like the idea those words have lost currency? Maybe making the missing 54 a lexicon of society’s failure but also of our hope might be stronger – more useful out than in, perhaps."
Oxford University Press replies
On Monday top authors, poets and naturalists were among 28 prominent people who wrote to Oxford University Press calling for some of the fifty nature words lost from their Junior Dictionary to be reinstated. The issue first arose in 2007, was not corrected with the 2012 edition, and is now a growing concern as we look for cultural leaders to help resolve a seemingly unstoppable problem - the rapid decline in children's formative experiences of nature. The letter sets out the problem here, and now we have a response from the OUP.
Press and social media coverage since Monday shows that concern about children's disconnectedness from nature is widespread. The Oxford Times spoke to the Headteacher of West Oxford Primary School Clare Balden, who backed our letter and said the 238-pupil school had a particular focus on outdoor learning. She said: “These are children of the 21st century so they need to know hi-tech stuff, but there does need to be a balance between screen time and time outdoors. “Technical language is part of children’s everyday speech, but they might not necessarily come across words like chestnut and conker, so they should stay in the dictionary.”
Pupils at the school agreed that nature words should not be scrapped. Frith Dixon, seven, said: “I love playing outdoors so I think the nature words should stay.” Rosie Gee, also seven, added: “I live on a farm and I love learning about nature.”
a vital means of connection and understanding - Sir Andrew Motion
Norwich-based Eastern Daily Press spoke to two well-known Norfolk writers: Simon Barnes and Mark Cocker. Mark sees his wildlife-rich county as the natural place for the campaign to have taken hold. Simon told the paper: “children need access to nature as never before in history. An Oxford Dictionary aimed at seven-year-olds should go out of its way to help them.”
Sir Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, told the Guardian that “by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.
“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.”
Elsewhere in the Guardian, Patrick Barkham writes “It would be hard to find a more striking example of our alienation from the natural world, and how we are denying children a relationship with wild things.
“Oxford University Press may have joined mainstream educators and the other purveyors of neoliberal capitalism in assuming that nature must be abandoned to the nagging demands of technology but how can we make space for nature in children’s lives?” He then goes on to offer Five Simple Ways to Help your Child get Into the Wild.
Shooting the messenger?
In Margaret Atwood's home country Canada, coverage included articles in Huffington Post Canada and the CBCNews website.
Alistair Fraser from Kootenay Lake, Canada, writes a nature blog Exploring Kootenay Lake. In a thoughtful piece he writes “It seems to me that the Oxford Junior Dictionary is being blamed for recognizing a deeper problem: the decline in the relevance of the natural world to today’s children. Is this a problem of Oxford’s making? Hardly. Does Oxford make a convenient scapegoat? It would seem so.”
Fraser’s blog is beautifully illustrated with his own pictures of some of the wildlife removed from the dictionary, including otters, a (great blue) heron, a (belted) kingfisher and a beaver. He concludes: “The solution (if indeed there is one) does not lie with shooting the messenger (Oxford University Press); it involves dealing with the problem: the increasing irrelevance of the natural world for urbanites and their children.”
Alistair Fraser emailed me to alert me to his blog and I have replied: “To some extent I accept the charge of shooting the messenger and completely agree that the problem lies more deeply in society.
“However, making any kind of inroad into such a seemingly unstoppable process requires strong signals from those who have a leading role in cultural life. The Oxford Dictionary brand occupies such a position throughout the English speaking world. The OUP's edits, as you say in your blog, have all the appearance of being systematically anti-nature and pro-technology. Whilst I am sure there was no overt agenda in this, it makes them part of the problem. Correcting their error would be an even stronger signal in favour of natural childhood, and this is what we are calling on them to do.”
And finally, BBC Newsbeat asks "Are celebrities really more important than conkers?" Given that 28 celebrities have just supported NATURAL LIGHT's campaign to save the conker, I'll take the fifth on that one.
Top writers call for changes to Oxford Junior Dictionary
without language we will eventually lose the land itself
Robert Macfarlane's forthcoming book Landmarks develops the theme. Robert says "it was one of two chief motives for the book's existence - the other being the 'peat glossary' I was handed on the Isle of Lewis...a beautifully precise and evocative word-list of more than 120 Gaelic terms for aspects of the moor."
Landmarks, published on March 6th, is a celebration of the language of landscape. “It opens with my dismay at the OJD deletions which I see as a symptom of the natural and the outdoor being displaced by the virtual and the indoor” he says. “I’m worried that the basic literacy of nature is falling away. A should be for Acorn, not Attachment.”
Award-winning author and ecologist Mark Cocker agrees, and sees a threat to nature as well. "Without language we will eventually lose the land itself" he fears.
War Horse author and former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo said “my wife Clare and I started the charity Farms For City Children, and so we have witnessed at first hand the benefits for children of a sense of belonging and connection with the countryside and the natural world.”
The letter's authors point out that 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. They highlight the link with obesity, anti-social behaviour and friendlessness.
But they conclude that the Oxford University Press is well placed to provide cultural leadership and play its part in changing this situation. They argue that a deliberate and publicised decision to restore some of the most important nature words would be “a tremendous cultural signal and message of support for natural childhood.”
More nature words we want back in the Oxford Junior Dictionary
Olivia Sprinkel is studying at Royal Holloway College for an MA in Creative Writing: Place, Environment and Writing taught by Andrew Motion, Jo Shapcott and Sara Wheeler. When she heard about NATURAL LIGHT’s campaign she got in touch: “I first read about the OJD removing nature words in a book called Towards Re-enchantment: Place and its meaning in an essay by Robert Macfarlane. I was moved to write a poem which includes [in italics below] some of the words added and some of the words deleted, to highlight what is happening to children's childhoods.”
The Committee for Childhood has decreed by Olivia Sprinkel
Young people of today,
the Committee for Childhood has decreed
the following words are hereby deemed
superflous to your youthful need:
No longer do you need to know
the onomatopoeia of babbling brooks,
or recognise the glint of minnows as they dart.
Henceforth, no longer will earthy beetroot
or hedgerow blackberry stain your little fingers,
let’s keep them clean! Our official stamp
obliterates the porpoises who arc
between crystal sea and sky,
the heron standing proud and still.
The conk of a conker being conquered
or the lonely belly-deep bray of a donkey
from across fields far away -
you will not miss these sounds.
It is but childish to hold a buttercup
to a friend’s chin to see gold glow.
And why do you need to know
it is from acorns that oak trees grow?
We will provide.
Instead, we decree,
these are the frames
for what you see:
is, of course, compulsory.
Your souls will be formed
to block graphs and databases.
The Committee welcomes you
to your citizenship of this world!
The physical fitness of children is declining by 9% per decade
Remembering the fallen in the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War needed a stunning and unforgettable piece of contemporary art. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper certainly met that need. The poppy as a symbol of remembrance arises from another work of art, whose centenary is next year. In Flanders Fields was written by Canadian army physician Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872-1918), on May 3 2015.
In the third and final pre-Christmas blog of this campaign, we look at some more words - poppy among them - that must be put back in the OJD, and hear from more people with recommendations for alternative books for children. But first, a new poem.
The list of words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary two editions ago includes thirty of our best loved plants and animals, and a host of others relating to the countryside, farming and food. The list of ins and outs is here. As we pointed out in previous blogs, a generation ago, 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while another 40% never play anywhere outdoors. The physical fitness of children is declining by 9% per decade, according to Public Health England. There is no single reason why childhood has changed so radically in barely a generation; if there were, it would be illegal: it would simply not be permitted to consign children to a lower life expectancy than their parents as, for the first time in recorded history, we now have.
In a ground-breaking initiative the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts are calling for a Nature and Wellbeing Act in England to strengthen legislation for the creation of accessible green space, more resilient protected areas and an education system that reconnects society with nature as a matter of duty.
What has that got to do with a few words removed from a dictionary? The toll of lost words will come as a surprise to anyone who still regards connecting with nature a vital part of growing up. Sounding the death knell for outdoor play by axing some of the words most associated with it is to be part of a problem society cannot afford to just accept with an impotent shrug.
So to my final recommendations for alternative children's books this Christmas. My RSPB colleague Suzanne Welch has worked in young people’s social development and learning for a range of different organisations from social care to environmental education centres. “I am a firm believer that many young people learn and develop as individuals more effectively through experiential opportunities within the natural environment” says Suzanne.
"I think The Beginner’s Guide to Being Outside by Gill Hatcher is lovely. And one of my all time favourites is Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor with pictures by Peter Parnall. The beautiful illustrations and reflective process of finding the perfect rock for you is different and compelling."
Every wild thing needs one in their rucksack
Mark Sears is Director of the Wild Network, which brings together organisations dedicated to reconnecting children with nature. “I have been lucky enough to get hold of any early copy of Learning With Nature by Marina Robb, Anna Richardson and Victoria Mew. It’s aimed at adults who want to get their children learning outdoors.” The official publication date is end of January 2015 but you can place orders now via the link.
Mark says: “it is beautifully set out with hundreds of awesome things to do with your wild one. Whether its making flower fairies (a particular favourite of my 4-year old and me) or learning how to make shelters and fire safely, its all in this book in a really easy to read and digest way. Every wild thing needs one in their rucksack.”
Ten reasons not to buy the Oxford Junior Dictionary this Christmas
In 2008 mother-of-four Lisa Saunders noticed that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had lost a host of familiar words, and had gained some new ones. Mrs Saunders was concerned to see the loss of words associated with the Church, such as Altar, Bishop and Chapel. In had come Apparatus, Blog and Creep. Then in Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales author Sara Maitland pointed out that it was the language of nature that was hardest-hit in the OJD's cull: words like Acorn, Bluebell and Catkin. Childhood in the Oxford University Press's world has shifted from one of nature and Christmas, to one of celebrity, cyberspace and fear of strangers.
Six years and another edition on, half a dozen cohorts of the OJD's target market have now been provided with a lexicography for the increasingly interior, solitary and urbanised world they inhabit rather than enthused with words to describe a world they have yet to explore.
In the days before Christmas we will celebrate some lost words and call for them to be reinstated. We start today with ten of the words you won't find in recent editions of the OJD.
Acorn Acorns, and the mighty oaks a few of them will become, play a vital role in forest ecology. Ironically, food chain is one of the new terms added to the Junior Dictionary, while the acorn, and many other vital parts of the food chain, have been taken out.
Making tiny tea-sets from acorn cups, or drawing faces on the acorns to create strange woodland creatures - we all did it.
Bluebell In a Plantlife survey the bluebell was overwhelmingly voted the nation’s favourite flower, revealing a strong cultural connection and a national love of the stunning carpets they form in our ancient woods each spring.
The UK has around 50% of the world’s population making our bluebell woodlands unique and internationally important.
In suburban areas, most bluebells are hybrids due to the invasiveness of the garden variety, the Spanish bluebell.
Buttercup Do you like butter? Generations of children have grown up holding buttercups under their chins to see if they do.
The origin of the name appears to come from a belief that it gave butter its golden hue. In reality buttercups are poisonous to cattle and are often left uneaten.
Kingfisher Every budding birdwatcher's eye is drawn to the page with the kingfisher on it. Possibly our brightest bird, yet difficult to see: a real test for a young naturalist's fieldcraft.
But sit quietly, and it is not unheard of for one to suddenly appear on the tip of a fishing-rod.
Before we continue - why does this matter? Firstly, 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 acknowledged consequences. As they grow up (with a lower life expectancy than their parents - the first time in recorded history that has happened), we can expect an incomprehension of the natural world and an inability to manage its delicate balance, or to fix it when the balance goes wrong.
Although the starling is in serious decline, there are places where kids can still witness its jaw-dropping aerial displays. They just can't look up the bird as, along with the lark, the starling is already extinct in the pages of the Junior Dictionary. They can record the break-out of pussy willow buds in spring, but they can't check how to spell catkin.
And like a premature obituary to natural play, the conker is gone, along with the tree that bears it, as both the horse chestnut and its fruit have been excised. The joy of catching a minnow may still be had, but not written about. The Oxford University Press claims that a dictionary is for recording language and its trends, not governing it. But while the OJD's senior counterpart may add the occasional workaround or high muckety-muck, no word is ever deleted from the grown-up Oxford English Dictionary.
If children are to learn about ash, beech, brook, cowslip, fern, fungus, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, pasture, primrose, stoat, sycamore, violet, weasel and willow they will need an earlier edition. The latest offers MP3 Player, celebrity, voicemail, chatroom, cut and paste (to go with the extant words paste and cut) and the aforementioned creep.
the magpie is no more
In the run-up to the latest edition, OUP put out a press release “revealing fascinating insights into British children’s use of language.” “Refreshingly”, it said, “OUP research clearly demonstrates that British children still love reading. Evidence of this is their magpie approach to words famous writers have previously invented.”
To look up what this means, chose your dictionary carefully. In the Oxford Junior the magpie is, er, no more.
Our Christmas campaign
Every few days in the run-up to Christmas, NATURAL LIGHT will present more words lost from the OJD's world, including some seasonal shockers and many of the most cherished symbols of childhood enriched by nature.
And for last minute shoppers, we'll suggest some books to fill the gap under the tree where the OJD might have gone.... To start with, click the button for books loved by Project Wild Thing - a partnership dedicated to reconnecting kids and their families with the outdoors.
Why not add your recommendations?
a site devoted to nature, and artists who are
inspired by it
editor Laurence Rose
Follow us on
Facebook and Twitter