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Back to January Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 276 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS JANUARY 2009

Changes in Dictionary Reflect Changes in Childhood
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The Oxford Junior Dictionary must be child-friendly and small enough for seven-year-olds to hold and thumb through. Oxford University Press can't add dozens of words to the 10,000-word dictionary without taking dozens out; but the choice to excise words associated with Christianity, British history, and nature has angered many Britons and incited debate about the changing nature of childhood.

The 2007 version of the dictionary leaves out many words of significance in Christianity such as saint, minister, abbey, altar, psalm, pew, devil, sin, monk, nun, and christen. Representatives from Oxford University Press cited Britain's multi-faith society as a reason for those deletions.

"People don't go to church as often as before," noted Vineeta Gupta, head of the Press's children's dictionaries division. "Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism which is why some words such as 'Pentecost' or 'Whitsun' would have been in 20 years ago but not now." Gupta may have a point about "Whitsun," but "disciple"? "Parish"? Much British literature would be incomprehensible without the set of vocabulary words the dictionary now excludes. "We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years," argued Prof. Alan Smithers, who directs the Center for Education and Employment at Buckingham University. "To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable."

Smithers believes the changes reflect larger changes in modern childhood. "The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that informational technology creates for us."

Words from the realm of information technology added to the 2007 dictionary include blog, mp3 player, attachment, database, and chat room. Other newcomer entries come from the psychologized modern classroom: tolerant, interdependent, conflict, negotiate, cautionary tale, cope, emotion, and curriculum. Words such as bilingual, celebrity, committee, creep, allergic, EU, Euro, and biodegradable reflect various modern realities.

Vineeta Gupta chalked up the disappearance of dozens of words related to the British countryside to the urbanization and suburbanization of the country. When older versions of the dictionary were current, "many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed."

That's why children who use the current version will no longer find words such as pasture, colt, gerbil, heron, ox, piglet, acorn, almond, blackberry, bloom, ivy, fern, moss, clover, oats, poultry, turnip, or willow. "I am stunned that words like 'saint,' or 'buttercup,' 'heather' and 'sycamore' have all gone and I grieve it," said Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, a top private school. "I think as well as being descriptive, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has to be prescriptive too, suggesting not just words that are used but words that should be used. It has a duty to keep these words within usage, not merely pander to an audience. We are looking at the loss of words of great beauty. I would rather have 'marzipan' and 'mistletoe' than 'mp3 player.'" (The Telegraph, 12-8-08)

In defense of the changes, lexicographer Sheila Dignen, who worked on the project, cited the Press's market research into what teachers wanted from the dictionary. Teachers said they wanted to see more words related to Britain's national curriculum — which explains the appearance not only of buzzwords such as "tolerance" and "biodegradable," but also such dreary offerings as "trapezium," "chronological," "block graph," and "apparatus."


 
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