Shooting the messenger


Margaret Atwood is among the many prominent authors and naturalists who recently sent an open letter to the Oxford University Press. The group expressed its profound alarm at the decline in a child’s awareness of the natural world. The petition notes:

Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.

What is particularly interesting is what precipitated this angst. It seems that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has been systematically replacing entries about nature with those about technology. The petitioners objected. Nature Canada, which offers a list of Oxford’s expunged words, summarizes the issue wryly: blog is in; beaver is out.

I share the concerns about nature awareness expressed by the authors of the petition, and with those of Canadian artist, Robert Bateman, who also commented upon the dictionary’s action:

This move will only help to alienate children from their wild neighbours. It’s taking a step in the totally wrong direction. If kids don’t know the name of something, they won’t care about it or think about it. This is especially true of our wild neighbours. How can we expect a kid to care about beavers or herons if they don’t know those words?

Oxford’s defence is that dictionaries are designed:

to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages.

It is a simple statement that turns the tables on the blame heaped upon Oxford: the dictionary merely reflects present usage—it is not a device for social engineering.

The analogy is that if your physician tells you that you have cancer (or whatever) do you appeal to him or her to merely change the diagnosis, rather than address the underlying problem? 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. 

My grandfather, Thurlow Fraser, was born in 1869 along the Ottawa River, just two years after Confederation. His father, Robert, taught him the names and behaviour of local plants and animals. Such instruction may well have been common in that day. While I similarly teach my grandson such things, I suspect that this behaviour has become an outlier in a changed country. When my grandfather was born, Canada was 19% urban and 81% rural. This has now reversed: Canada is 81% urban and 19% rural (Statistics Canada). 

As people have moved away from the natural world, its relevance declined in the consciousness of Canadians. Is it Oxford’s fault that it recognized the same problem as did the authors, naturalists, and artists? It seems to me that the Oxford Junior Dictionary is being made a scapegoat for a something far deeper. 

The solution (if indeed there is one) does not lie with shooting the messenger (Oxford); it involves dealing with the problem: the increasing irrelevance of the natural world for urbanites and their children.

I don’t have a fix. I could argue that this blog, with its frequent and clear delight in local nature, is an antidote. Yet, I am not so naïve as to endow my dabbling with such significance. 

Six of my shots of local animals are offered as a requiem for the lost relevance of the natural world. Alas, the assessment of the Oxford Junior Dictionary is probably disturbingly correct.

Are these otters wistfully contemplating lexicographic oblivion?

A heron is more concerned with eagle aggression than dictionary neglect.

Will my visiting kingfisher stop by less often now that it has been deemed irrelevant?

Even that national icon, the beaver, has been expunged, and with it much of Canadian history.

This doe, but maybe not her fawn, is now free to vanish from a child’s consciousness,

And even the ubiquitous raven has been erased from the ledger. It is unlikely to stop here.

The fact that nature has receded from our consciousness is not the fault of a dictionary; it is the fault of all of us. 



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10 Responses to Shooting the messenger

  1. Eileen Delehanty Pearkes says:

    good for you, Alistair! Indeed, how we live individually and in community
    is a choice.

  2. derek says:

    Isn’t ‘dictionary’ more irrelevant than ravens in the real world?

  3. Jana says:

    Alistair, thank you for this. As grandparents we have a huge role to play.

  4. Wesley Kirkwood says:

    I am so impressed with your thoughtful blog. that I am forwarding it to my kids and Grandkids.
    We should also worry about their abilities to feed themselves from other than supermarket shelves.

  5. Christine says:

    This is an insightful, important article. I’ll post your link to it on my FB status page, an example of valuable teamwork.

  6. Margaret Young says:

    I so enjoy your beautiful photos and agree with your latest remarks. You ground me with nature’s beauty.

  7. Hi Alistair
    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. We are calling on OUP to correct their error and thereby send an even stronger signal in favour of natural childhood.

    • Alistair says:

      Laurence, I am honoured that the person behind the letter to Oxford University Press took the time to respond to my hinterland posting (but then, the topic at hand is the relevance of wilderness). In a comment above, Derek questioned the continuing relevance of (printed) dictionaries. It may well be that they hang on in elementary schools only as a temporary way to avoid security problems with children and connectivity. As such, part of the OUP increasing emphasis on technological words may be merely a flailing attempt to postpone its own printed irrelevance. After all pruning a wordlist is not a problem with capacious RAM storage. Whatever the motive, the present emphasis on technological terms in the Oxford Junior Dictionary might be as portentous as if the last printed edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica had included an article about Wikipedia. I suspect that in a few years the present concern over the content of a printed dictionary will appear quaintly irrelevant.

  8. robin andrea says:

    This is an eloquent and beautiful post. Thank you for writing it down and for photographing the astonishing beauty of the natural world.

  9. Cynthia says:

    You use the blog to chronicle beavers, which nicely illuminates both worlds. I agree there is no reason, other than printed paper, to kick the penguin out for Pinterest. Kids nowadays should be able to use mobile devices to learn about merlins and mice, google and goldfinches, links and larches, eagles and emails, passwords and pine grosbeaks, drones and dippers, herons and href, and on. Each dictionary term can now easily be linked to the sounds of a bird, a video of their activities, a map of their habitats, a genealogy of their ancestors and relatives, including their cartoon cousins. This is the power of the Internet. It is very 1990’s to think it sufficient to provide audio of the ways a word can be pronounced. If Oxford junior dictionary wants to reflect how language is used for more than a decade, then it needs to provide linked, interrelated, multimedia dictionary terms. Maybe to be hip, #oed could weekly #tbt historical nature terms like otters and ospreys. Or maybe, OJD could include interactive games where kids to rack up points for every new word they learn, and then decide which of those points will go to feed endangered words, countries could compete, with Canadian IP addresses racking up bonus point for the quintessentially Canadian, etc. Dictionaries might take a lesson from Thesauruses (if we ignore antonyms) and think less in binary terms, and more about an Internet of relationships between words. Now that might reflect how language is used today in a way that digital natives would understand!

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