October 4, 2017

Once upon a broadband, in a chatroom… far away? — A new book hopes to bring kids back to reality


Do you know what this is? It’s a photo of trees covered in moss.

Back in 2007, the Oxford English Dictionary made some startling changes to their “Juniors” edition, the OJD. Out went such useful words as “moss” and “blackberry”; in came (the equally useful) “blog,” “chatroom,” and “database.” For the next eight or so years, the famed dictionary continued slashing words directly tied to the natural world and replacing them with digital ones. There’s been plenty of outcry from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Helen MacDonald, and Robert McFarlane; these authors are denouncing the decision as reflective of a deeper issue concerning childhood today—namely, that kids are spending too much time indoors and that it’s affecting their health—and accusing the dictionary of hastening that bleak future.

But simply speaking against Oxford’s decision wasn’t enough, so naturalist and academic writer Robert McFarlane—alongside artist Jackie Morris—has created Lost Words, a beautifully illustrated book that brings back the vocabulary eliminated from the OJD. In these “acrostic spell-poems,” McFarlane supplies context, examples, and a stories for all these words, reinstating their connection not just with the natural world but also with humanity’s long history in that world.

In an interview with Anita Sethi of the Telegraph, McFarlane discusses the impetus behind Lost Words:

“The nature of childhood is changing dramatically. The increase of screen-time and decrease in roaming radius [caused both by an increase in parental anxiety and because there are fewer wild places for children to play] all point to that. Then there is the inability of children to name even nearby nature. It’s not about snow leopards and jungles and remote mountaintops — it’s about the living world with which we share our living days. I really wanted The Lost Words to be a book about everyday woods, fields and hedgerows.”

Oxford University Press did eventually release a statement concerning their decision to update the OJD. Published within a larger feature by Alison Flood tat the Guardian, OUP had this to say:

All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines in determining which words [can] be included in each dictionary, based on several criteria: acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age; corpus analysis; acknowledging commonly misspelled or misused words; and taking curriculum requirements into account.

Do you know what this is? It’s a very sad chat room no one wants to be a part of.

This is a frighteningly impersonal and half-hearted response for the OUP to make — not to mention wrong. Every decision the Oxford makes is prescriptive; that’s the nature of publishing a yearly updated book about the most valuable words in the English language. These decisions speaks much more to how OJD decision-makers see the future of our world than they’d like to admit.

The conversation brings up a larger question, as well, of how exactly kids acquire language and where nurture begins and nature ends (for lack of a better pun). Perhaps the words we should be preserving—and making every effort to keep—are the ones that kids have less of a chance of stumbling upon spontaneously. Whatever efforts parents make to keep their kids from the Internet, or unlimited data, it’s going to find a way into their lives. Moss and ferns? Maybe not so much.



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.