On the function of dictionaries

The news that several authors and naturalists, including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion, wrote a distressed open letter to plead that a collection of nature words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary — catkin, acorn, pansy, etc. — be reinstated has naturally made me think of McDonalds.

The word ‘McJob’ was coined in 1986 by sociologist Amitai Etzioni in the Washington Post, referring to low-skilled, dead-end jobs for school-leavers and humanities graduates. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “A low-paid job with few prospects”. It’s a derogatory term, and being so closely linked with the McDonalds brand meant that in 2007, McDonalds attempted to get the Oxford English Dictionary to change its meaning.

They failed, of course, because that’s not how dictionaries work. A dictionary describes our language; it does not prescribe it. It’s why a dictionary can include an informal definition of the word ‘literally’ as “used for emphasis while not being literally true”. You might not like it but people literally do use the word that way, so tough.

Those protesting the removal of the nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary — you can read the open letter here — are asking for the same thing that McDonalds were asking for: that the dictionary prescribe a desired lifestyle, rather than describing an existing one.

This is hopeless. Children aren’t going to trawl a dictionary for words such as bramble, bray, primrose and sheaf and go gallivanting off to the nearest orchard or wood, because they probably don’t live anywhere near an orchard or wood, and if they did they probably wouldn’t be allowed to play there due to parents’ fears of kidnapping paedophiles lurking in the bushes. If childhood ever really was a time for tumbling through woodland, playing conkers and polishing bridles — and I’m skeptical that children of the past from poorer, urban backgrounds would have use for words such as ‘pasture’ and ‘sycamore’ any more than contemporary children would — then the removal of these words is an indication that the time has long-since passed. Once the language has moved beyond the lifestyle, it’s almost certainly too late.

Maybe children are too sedentary these days, I don’t know, but if it is a problem, it won’t be solved by making children read about horse chestnuts and buttercups instead of broadband and blogs; all that’s likely to do is teach them that the dictionary doesn’t tell them anything about their lives. Want children to be frolicking through their local orchard? Then get your community together to build an orchard nearby, kick your kids off their phones and don’t let them back home until they’re covered in grass stains. Change the lifestyle and the language will follow.

By Paul Haine, in