Monday, December 8, 2008

Goodbye Bramble

This story's been all over the Interwebs this morning, and rightly so. Oxford University Press has recently released their newest edition of the Junior Dictionary, with many words relating to Christianity and British history scrubbed out and replaced by such linguistic gems as voicemail, biodegradable, and compulsory. (Then again, that last word will probably be increasingly relevant with every passing year). This is a travesty, of course, but sadly unsurprising. What does surprise and deeply sadden me are the number of words for animals, birds and flowers that OUP has decreed irrelevant to today's youth. I'm with Ross Douthat that this is "just as disquieting as the disappearance of words like minister, monastery, monk, and nun." They've traded in duchess, starling, bramble, marzipan, porridge, nunnery, rhubarb, and liquorice (haphazardly choosing some charming words) for celebrity, vandalism, cut and paste, endangered, block graph, and bungee jumping. And I know they'd just lecture me how the language is evolving and one mustn't be hidebound, but if this is a sign of the future of English, it's an ugly future indeed.


Elephantschild said...

List 1:
rhubarb, and

List 2:
cut and paste,
block graph, and
bungee jumping.

Hm. Looking at those two lists, I'd hazard a guess that the *sound* of English is changing as well. Second list is full of harder-sounding syllables.

Shane said...

They should just make the complete Oxford English Dictionary more easily available to the public. I'm surprised that there is still a market for printed dictionaries.

I think most of the additions are warranted - those are commonly used words that a young person is likely to encounter. Voicemail, biodegradable, celebrity, vandalism, and endangered are very much part of the lexicon. And if room must be made under this arbitrary 10,000 word cap, then maybe bramble, marzipan, and rhubarb aren't worth keeping. Bishop, aisle, chapel, empire and monarch, though?

The real scandal is the 10,000 word cap. I guess maybe distributing clearly incomplete dictionaries will end the erroneous but commonly held belief that a word has to be in the dictionary to be a "real" word.

Just for fun, though, they need to take out "gullible" for a year.

Elephantschild said...

But I like marzipan! The food AND the word!

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

It's a delightful word for a delightful thing, what's not to love?

But Shane opens an interesting question: what precisely is the purpose of a dictionary? To me, it's primary role as a reference suggests that priority should be given to words expressing key concepts, and particularly those that are most likely to be unfamiliar. This is complicated in that we're talking about a dictionary for children, which I would argue would strengthen the importance of a dictionary's secondary role, which is as a sort of monument to the language itself. Any kid will be able to find out from somewhere what "compulsory" means. Heck, if she understands the principles behind a kid's dictionary, she can go grab a grown-up one (which, come to think of it, is probably the greatest value of making a kid's dictionary in the first place). My concern is for the kid who spends his free time paging through his dictionary for the joy of discovering new and beautiful words (don't laugh, this was me), and for that kid, celebrity and vandalism just can't hold a candle to marzipan and mistletoe.

"Marzipan and Mistletoe"... sounds like the name of an indie Christmas album.