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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Dictionary leaves out thousands of words!

Shock horror. The Oxford Junior Dictionary does not include the following words:
acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and pasture
This piece of news was the object of much indignation before Christmas as trigger-happy fingers clicked on a petition demanding their reinstatement.  Apparently their omission is contributing to species decline and childhood obesity (I'm not making that up, it was in the petition). Such luminaries as Margaret Atwood have complained about this failing in the dictionary, so clearly something needs to be done.

My eyes couldn't have rolled any more. 

I've got news for you. There are TENS OF THOUSANDS of words that the Oxford Junior Dictionary doesn't include.  It's a SMALL dictionary. Perhaps all those petitioners should have had a look at it before they got so righteously indignant. 

Here's a picture of one page (8x6"):

Some space-gobbling features to notice (all of them designed to be child-friendly):
  • the typeface is very large
  • parts of speech are written out in full 
  • plurals of every noun are given, written out in full (not, for instance as -s), and introduced by the word "plural", also written out in full
  • all verbs are conjugated and written out in full
  • a full blank line between one entry and the next
  • when a word has more than one part of speech (e.g. heat, noun and verb) each part of speech has its own entry instead of the two being run together
  • within each entry, each definition starts on a new line
  • the definitions are very chatty, and often include example sentences
  • very handy homophone-disambiguation boxes  (hear/here, heal/heel)
As a result, there are by my estimate only about 5,000 words in this dictionary (compared to about 120,000 in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary). Tell me now, which 5,000 words would YOU put in a dictionary for 7-9-year-olds? Go on, I dare you. I double-dare you. 

Do you really think "cowslip" should be one of them? What will you have to get rid of to make space for "newt"? Which one of those words in the page depicted above are you ready to axe in favour of "adder"? Do you really think that "beech" is one of the top 10 trees?  Speaking of which, where will you stop with the trees? Here's a short list of trees:


If you want to add "ash" and "beech", aren't all the others also deserving to be in? And you're not even out of the trees yet. Now holier-than-thou complainants want you to include all the flowers, birds, and animals as well. Not to mention that some other complainants also took against this dictionary because it didn't include "bishop" and other church-related words.  C'mon everyone, jump on your particular hobbyhorse and complain to the dictionary that your words aren't in!

Bear in mind that this is in a day and age when people aren't willing to spend any money on dictionaries. Lexicographers are hyper-conscious about producing dictionaries at a price that people are willing to pay. They can't just keep making the dictionary bigger to include everyone's favourite tree, flower, and amphibian. This one cost me $17.95+5% tax (yes, I actually BOUGHT it to have a look at it before I started making pronouncements about it). I recall when I worked in dictionaries, people thought $9.95 was about right for a dictionary. They would buy the Compact Oxford Canadian Dictionary, a small paperback at that price that we lexicographers called "The El Cheapo Oxford Canadian Dictionary" -- and then write to complain that there were words we had excluded! 

By the way, did you notice that the headwords are in blue in the Oxford Junior, to make them stand out better from the rest of the text and make it easier for the kids, who are just learning to use dictionaries? That costs more money too. I'm sure the lexicographers would have liked to add illustrations to the Oxford Junior but.... there goes more space... and more money. I can't imagine what people's reaction would be to a $25 price for a 280-page book. Well, actually I can.

When Margaret Atwood lets lexicographers tell her how to write novels, then she can start telling lexicographers how to write dictionaries.

Please don't sign this nonsensical petition.

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  1. Thank you for the glimpse inside dictionaries, Katherine, and for calling for reason.

  2. Well, I understand your argument, but would come back on two points. I am surprised that the OUP should think it worth spending money on blue ink as well as black, rather than include entries for such common words as those mentioned in the petition. Secondly, I question the value of calling a book a dictionary, even a junior one, that omits words such as these.

    Incidentally, you will find many of the words mentioned in the petition are the subject of "The Lost Words" by Robert Macfarlane: fine poems, wonderfully illustrated: more costly than the OJED, but worth every penny or cent. I write as a disinterested but captivated purchaser, who gave it to a grandchild.

    1. I'm an old printer. Ink colour is incidental to the cost of the printing, page count is far more expensive.

    2. The value in calling it a dictionary is because it IS a dictionary. You might not care for the mix of words within it, but it's a "reference book listing alphabetically terms or names important to a particular subject or activity along with discussion of their meanings and applications" (MWC).

      Choices of which words to include must be made in order to create any dictionary. No dictionary (yet) contains every word--though the OED is working on it! I would hope that if your grandchild couldn't find a word they wanted in a junior dictionary that you would teach them to continue their search in a larger dictionary.

  3. Interesting discussion! I am not sure what the American edition of this dictionary left out (and I am a writer of children's science nonfiction, so I do love all these words!), but this particular list includes a lot of British-English words, which would be reason enough to leave them out of a U.S. dictionary (though I was horrified that "Harry Potter" books were Americanized and took care to purchase the British editions). I think out of that list I'd only argue in favor of acorn, dandelion, fern, nectar, and pasture from the POV of producing a U.S. version...to support what kids are learning in school and sustain some connection to natural processes as well as where food comes from. It's fascinating though to see how children's dictionaries evolve; I have some old ones that contain pretty shocking stuff, definitely reflective of their times!

  4. I have to assume that these complainers don't think kids have access to the internet, where they can find a whole bunch of definitions (some of them appropriate). It's lovely to teach kids to use a paper dictionary (and I personally love to thumb through mine almost 7 decades on), but we also have to face up to where they--and dictionaries--are going.

  5. As one who signed the original letter, and as a co-author of The Lost Words, I have always maintained that the dropping of the words from the dictionary was a wonderful catalyst to realising the opening gulf between humans and the natural world. Having worked with The lost Words in schools I have been shocked to find that many children haven't been taught what a wren is, don't know a weasel from a wombat. More shocking was the teacher, who before beginning work on her three words had to look them up in the dictionary ( fortunately not the 20017 illustrated version).
    Obviously OUP have their own editorial policy. What this decision highlighted for Robert and myself was that gulf that was widening. Fortunately, and partly through the wonderful Explorer's Guides crafted by Eva John, and hosted on the John Muir Trust website, this knowledge gap is decreasing.
    I hope what we made together is a beautiful celebration of language and art and the nearby wild.
    I'm currently working on another book which, I think, highlights the loss of natural literacy in our increasingly urban times.
    And I do love a good dictionary.

    1. I was born in the 1950s and brought up in a London suburb. All those nature words were known to me, but most of them from books, not from the world. I could not have identified an ash or a cowslip, and I never knowingly saw an adder, a heron, a kingfisher, an otter, or a newt. What difference did it make to me whether or not they were in a dictionary?


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.