Over the past decade, Oxford Junior Dictionary has weeded nature out of its words.
Acorn, Apricot, Blackberry, Dandelion — the plants have wilted straight out of the text, along with their animal kin Beaver, Heron, Cheetah.
Their empty posts have been taken by Broadband, MP3 player, Chatroom (tellingly, Allergy, Drought, and Endangered have also made their appearance).
It’s probably no fault of the dictionary. When the average kid in the U.S. spends less than 30 minutes a day outside, but more than seven hours in front of an electronic screen, they’re bound to be more curious about the parts of a motherboard than the parts of a flower. Shaking a fist at the dictionary is just blaming the messenger. The damage has been done: the new Oxford Junior Dictionary just demonstrates it.
But the discovery of deleted words does raise the question of children and literacy. Maybe your kid can read and write, and even type out text messages faster than you — but is she literate?
What I mean is:
When she sees little glimmering beads in the dirt, does she surmise that they’re snail eggs? Can she sift out an ant-lion from under the little funnel they build in the sand? Does she know when the moon wanes and waxes and how to find north by following the edge of the Big Dipper? Can she recognize the succession of spring flowers?
I watch my nieces and nephews with pokemon cards and matchbox cars: children have an astonishing capacity to remember and identify the details of the world around them. With enough time outdoors and a mentor, those details are biological, geological, meteorological. It’s a capacity that’s deep in us, the most primal hunger for knowledge, a skill that has been necessary for our survival for millennia.
After centuries of ‘improving education’ by caging children up into rooms for longer amounts of time, we’re only now returning to the question of ‘nature literacy.’ We’re recognizing that maybe it matters if we don’t know our world and the other species we share it with. The term “nature deficit disorder” was coined in 2005, and we continue to learn the very real health consequences to children sitting all day inside a box of a room, with their neck bent toward a screen (in addition to the usual spate of severe health problems, I just learned it increases their likelihood of nearsightedness). But it also shapes their brains. Exposure to the outdoors can reduce children’s ADHD symptoms, rapidly drop their stress levels, and protect against anxiety and depression.
I don’t want to harrumph about kids-these-days, or wax rhapsodic about the Good Old Days when we really knew how to have fun in the mud and the muck. Kids now have an incredible wealth of information and connections to others (after all, maybe they don’t need ‘dandelion’ in their dictionary, because they’ll just google pictures anyway).
But I do want the question to tug at us a little bit. Spur us to be a little more intentional in bringing kids along on an exploration of the wild world that’s still out there. Part of this is because, as author, Robert Macfarlane noted: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole, we do not know what we cannot name.” Ignorance is always dangerous, but now more than ever, ecological illiteracy is catastrophic. We’re giving the next generation a world where wildlife populations have halved in just 40 years — and we’re taking away the words for the ones who remain.
But read the list of stricken words below, and the list of their replacements, and you’ll see another aspect to this controversy. Beauty. We’re losing all the beautiful words and replacing them with ugly ones. Replace Minnow with MP3 Player, replace Crocus with Cut-and-Paste, and it’s not only fisheries and flowerbeds that suffer. It’s felt first in the body’s hunger for words of beauty. If we raise kids to better sit in boxes and speak of a “differentiating value-added strategy,” what will be the cost, measured in worlds and measured in hearts?
This is perhaps why it wasn’t just environmentalists who raised a cry over the lost words, but also authors, the people who care most passionately about words. A group of 28 writers, including Margaret Atwood, noted that the new words “are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered.”
And if the fault ultimately lies less in the dictionary and more in our daily lives, consider ways to bring the young ones (and yourself) out into the wilder world. A park, a mountain, a river (consider a family rafting trip). Need any ideas for what you can teach the young humans in your life?
Begin with this litany of deleted words:
For comparison, here are some of the words that took their place:
Cut and Paste
Written by Kate Savage, desert wanderer, river lover, and freelance writer. Check out Holiday’s River Currents blog for more of Kate’s writing soon!