Wordless Dictionaries

oxford_dictionaryWe 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.

cowslip

cowslip

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.

oxford school dictionaryDictionaries 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?

_72982736_vikings courtesy of BBCTo me, this is tantamount to a mass burning of books just because they contain “dangerous ideas.”

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.”

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6 Comments

Filed under Adventure, Battles, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Self Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

6 responses to “Wordless Dictionaries

  1. I totally agree with you: why should we lose words that still have relevance and meaning, but are simply not in frequent use.
    What really concerns me, looking at the lists above, is that those deemed ‘no longer relevant’ are all parts of nature, while the new inclusions are technology based. We are already seeing a rise in children who are so far divorced from nature that they don’t realise that meat comes from animals, and that potatoes are grown in the ground, and this only reinforces their lack of understanding of the world around them.
    I’ve predicted for a long time that the human race is starting to separate into two sub-species: townies and country folk. My view is based on the difference in immunity levels between the two groups, resulting from the excessive hygiene of the former which is actually weakening their resistance to disease and allergy (I’m a scientist by training – agriculture and animal production). I even have a good idea for a near-future SF story based on it.
    Looks like it’s coming faster than I thought.

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  2. But 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 all still exist. If there is no name for a thing does the thing no longer exist? Check “1984” for how manipulating the lexicon manipulates thought: if no word for something, the something ceases to exist; you can’t think of it. We need more words, not fewer!

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  3. I whole heartily agree with your post. It is particularly sad to see Oxford willing to abandon their reputation as a premier dictionary.

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    • @David–I think limiting a school dictionary to 40,000 words and none of them commonly found plants is a bad idea. Surely there was room in the reference book to leave those words in, and simply add the new words.

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