Ditch the dictionary and get outside

I don’t blame the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) for removing a host of gorgeous natural words from its pages and replacing them with ‘blog’, ‘celebrity’ and ‘committee’. A dictionary charts our changing language rather than directly altering it. The OJD is simply responding to the sad state of a world where technology and popular culture are considered to be more important than natural heritage.

You will never learn what a ‘catkin’ or ‘bluebell’ or ‘adder’ is from the pages of a dictionary. No formal, two-line explanation could do justice to the sway of catkins in the breeze, that touchable tassel of pollen. Or the scent of a carpet of bluebells, heady and rich, buzzing with bees. Or that brief, heart-stopping glimpse of an adder, slipping silently into the undergrowth.

As Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “I sincerely believe that for the child… it is not half so important to know as to feel.” A dictionary won’t help you feel, smell, touch, hear, taste and ultimately enjoy nature.

However, as I write this ‘blog’ (oh brave new ugly word), I also believe in the power of words. Without them, we cannot share our experiences or truly communicate those feelings.

Now, I believe that I bring my children up to touch catkins and know they turn in to hazelnuts, but I put it to the test. To replace some of the lost definitions in the OJD, here are my six-year-old’s suggestions, unedited. I’ve scored each one out of 10 for accuracy and level of detail.

Acorn – thing that falls from an oak tree and turns into another oak tree 10/10

Adder – fish in the sea 0/10

Ash – fire burnt down and a tall tree that can get a disease 7/10

Blackberry – spikey brambley plants grow blackberries and when they are purple you can eat them 10/10

Bluebells – flower comes in spring in woods. Not really blue, is purple. 10/10

Buttercup – flower that you get in meadows and gardens, yellow, put it under your chin to see if you like butter 10/10

Catkin –  brown, like acorns but fluffier and longer 8/10

Conker – falls from a chestnut tree, nice to collect 7/10

Cygnet – a baby turtle that lives in the sea 0/10

Dandelion – starts with a yellow flower that you can eat, then the dandelion clock comes with seeds you can blow to tell the time 9/10

Kingfisher – sparkly bird that goes in the water and catches fish 9/10

Newt – a type of frog, they are green or brown 5/10

I was shocked that my son had no clue what an ‘adder’, ‘cygnet’ ‘pasture’ or ‘fern’ is, but other than that, he did pretty well. His knowledge is based on what he has seen and touched, not on a book or television programme.

Yes, I am sad that the OJD has removed such beautiful, evocative words, but we had a battle on our hands well before that. We are losing nature at a scary rate and our children do not experience wild places on a daily basis. Losing words is a tiny problem in comparison.

The solution is in all our hands – get outside with your children or grandchildren every day and support charities such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts who are working hard to reverse natural declines. Then talk about it and share these underused words, for voices and experiences keep them alive, not dictionaries.


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