Alex Steer

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The end of civilization in 6,000 words

724 words | ~4 min

This happened over Christmas, but it's been a while since I got my claws into a good language topic, and it's worth saying some things about.

A few weeks back, there was one of those eruptions of rage which, for some reason, are periodically launched at the editors and publishers of dictionaries. This time, the target was that most innocuous of tomes, the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

Why? Well, a new edition came out, and a few keen-eyed readers noticed that, while a lot of new headwords had been added, many of them science- and technology-related, a good few had been ditched: several ecclesiastical terms (including bishop, pew and sin), some natural history terms (acorn, sycamore, starling among them), and various terms involving the monarchy and aristocracy (including monarch, no less). A full list is breathlessly cited by the Telegraph.

Naturally, various quarters have gone ballistic, claiming that this is a crackdown by politically-correct lexicographers determined to cut Britain's children off from the country's natural and national heritage. The finest example I've seen, from across the Atlantic, is titled Britain's Language Police. Attempts by OUP's children's dictionaries editor to explain the changes have not been met with broad smiles either.

But is this the cultural revolution that endless journalists are claiming? Will lexicographers be making the rest of the population melt their old dictionaries down for guns?* Of course not.

The dramatic extent of the changes reflect the fact that more and more dictionaries are beginning to be recompiled based on corpora of current English usage. These extremely useful tools (such as OUP's Oxford English Corpus) allow for good-quality frequency analysis, which helps lexicographers determine what should be included in a dictionary of a given size, and what shouldn't. Of course, frequency isn't the only criterion. Some less frequent words are still included, because they're the kind that are frequently looked up in dictionaries.

Now, like it or not, the Oxford Junior Dictionary is designed for children aged about 7-10, and only contains 6,000 headwords. For non dictionary fanatics, this is not very big at all. Unlike, say. the OED (where there might be good reason to query if words suddenly started getting removed - and they won't), there is huge competitive pressure for words in the OJD. By the age of 10, the average child (whoever that is) will understand around 40,000 words (see Anglin, 1993). But you don't even need to know that to realize that one small dictionary is not the be-all and end-all of a child's exposure to unfamiliar words. The OJD is designed for teachers to use, based on an understanding of words that children are likely to come across in day-to-day life. It is a reference tool, not a surrogate parent.

Nor is it, despite claims to the contrary, a tool for imaginative exploration. This is a tiny, tiny dictionary full of simple descriptions of fairly mundane things. It's hard to be romantic about it without imagining that it's something it's not. The editors, I would guess, have rather sensibly realized that the world is full of much more interesting tour guides for children, many of which - children's illustrated encyclopedias, for example, or the internet - did not exist when the first dictionaries for young readers were published. And so they should not be demonised for producing something small and useful which a child can use when he or she hears the term 'MP3 player' and wants to know what it means.

And yes, it may happen that the same child may want to know what a vicar is, and will look in the OJD and not find it there. And so will look it up somewhere else. And, as children do, note it and move on. Because it's not the end of the world.

* I know, I know. But metal dictionaries would be great.

# Alex Steer (22/01/2009)