We are in the midst of an extreme shift in the English language, a continual evolution as impossible to stop as the melting of the Antarctic ice-cap. This change is not necessarily a terrible thing, but it does come along with some interesting complications.
Robert Macfarlane discussed one negative aspect of our language shift in a blog post last week for The Guardian. He is not saying that the rapid shift in our dialect and word-usage is bad–after all, language needs to be spoken and it is like water: it’s always on the move and incredibly difficult to contain.
But Macfarlane sees a negative in the modern view of this fluidity, one that struck a real chord with me: “Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip,cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe,nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.”
Now, admittedly Robert Macfarlane is an avid reader of literary fiction, and he also writes literary and travel books. However, many people are still reading above the comic book level, and what he has to say in his piece concerns the dumbing-down or “flattening” of the language. Don’t try to tell me there isn’t enough room in the book for these words. Dictionaries are on-line now and there is in infinite amount of space in the internet for these words.
Dictionaries are the first reference book children will come into contact with in their schools, followed closely nowadays by Wikipedia. I admit that in a desk-reference form space is limited, but in a world where Blackberry means a smart-phone, there is no lack of space.
How will the landscape of our language look in fifty years? I sometimes doubt I would be understood, speaking in my ancient Northwest American dialect, using words that have no relevance. Without a comprehensive dictionary, how will the words I write today be understood by my great-grandchildren?
If I could say one thing to those who compile dictionaries it is that ALL the many words that make up our English language have relevance and should be included in what is being marketed as a truly comprehensive dictionary. At some point, a curious reader is going to want to know the meaning of a word, and if that word appeared in the dictionary at one time, why must it be removed just because a committee of naive scholars with extremely limited experience feels it is not needed?
I have one thing to say to the modern publishers of dictionaries: You have unlimited space in an on-line dictionary. When you allow words to fall out of the dictionary because they have fallen out of common use in YOUR milieu, your dictionary is not as comprehensive as you are pretending it is. You have lost YOUR relevance at that point.
These mongers of wordless dictionaries should feel some shame, because they are as responsible for the dumbing-down of the English language as is the casual speaker. Their own relevance is questionable, as more and more seekers of quick information will find it in the bowels of the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, OR they will Google it, as I did the word “inexorable.”