Future generations of children may know the word, ‘celebrity’. But will they be able to name a daisy or a buttercup? 

In 2007 the compilers and decision makers of the Oxford University Press Junior Dictionary took it upon themselves to remove 50 words relating to the natural world because they felt that today’s children were out of tune with nature and were more likely to be sitting in front of a computer screen than to be out exploring the countryside.

All the more reason to include the words I would have thought!

I doubt they envisaged a future when children would be spending even more time exploring nature. As a consequence of the lockdown many of today’s children are exploring parks, fields and woodland, in a way they seldom did before, as part of their “daily exercise”. And, even if they weren’t, with today’s important focus on the environment, conservation and the natural world, shouldn’t our children and grandchildren be able to differentiate between a buttercup and a bluebell?

The OUP chose to remove words such as acorn, bluebell and conker – just to give three examples – and replace them with what they considered to be words far more meaningful to today’s children such as “celebrity!”

At the time, 28 authors including Margaret Atwood, Andrew Motion and Michael Morpurgo requested that the OUP reverse its decision and more than 50,000 people signed a petition calling for the words related to the natural world to be reinstated. But the OUP defended their decision and no changes were made.

A number of religious words such as bishop, saint, disciple, chapel, minister and sin were also removed in the belief that now we are living in a more multi-cultural society they were no longer needed!

In 2012 when the OUP brought out a new edition of the Junior Dictionary they had the perfect opportunity to rescind their decision. But they not only maintained the changes they had made but added to them! That edition of the dictionary, which is aimed at seven year olds, features words such as analogue, broadband and voice-mail. A justification for the removal of the words relating to nature was that today’s children were more at ease naming their favourite Pokemon character than they were at naming a buttercup or a magpie. Again, all the more reason for including them!

Would it have been so difficult to add a few more pages rather than removing the words altogether? After all, the children’s dictionary contains around 10,000 words. Would another fifty have hurt?

A Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the prize-winning author Dr Robert Macfarlane, was concerned about these changes and decided to take action.  He conceived the idea of The Lost Words, A Spell Book. This book,  stunningly illustrated by the watercolour artist Jackie Morris, was brought to my attention earlier this year by a friend, Tessa Spanton, who is herself an artist.

The Lost Words features a large number of the words that have been removed from the children’s dictionary. Adder, fern, heather, ivy and kingfisher are just a few examples.  Macfarlane has written acrostic poems to describe each missing word.  In other words, the initial letter of the first word in each line spells out the title of the poem.

For me, it is the illustrations, rather than the poems, that make this book the wondrous thing it is. It is a beautiful book and a joy to own.  My only quibble is that it’s A3 in size which makes for a large, unwieldy and heavy hardback.  More a book for your coffee table than a book to share on your lap with children, which is how I would have liked to have used it.

For reasons of copyright, much as I would love to share the book’s illustrations with you, I cannot. So, you will have to take it from me that this is a book to buy and cherish. If any further encouragement is needed, a proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words, will be donated to Action for Conservation.

It goes without saying that I’m not getting anything for this plug on my blog. Or shall we call it a plog? How’s that for a new word OUP?


© Andrea Neidle, My Life in Poems


3 thoughts on “LOST FOR WORDS

  1. Dear Andrea,
    This sounds a lovely book and I will certainly have a look. I had no idea OUP had taken those words out of the dictionary. What a shame. I grew up in the country on various farms, my Father was a farmer and we moved about all the time. I taught both my children all about trees, plants and nature and they both carried the interest on into their adulthood. My daughter has the most incredible allotment, which I’m keen to see as soon as we can visit.
    Thank you for your daily blog.


    1. I found it hard to believe when first told about it as not had seen anything in the press or on the news. There was an outcry at the time. The book is beautiful and well worth having for the illustrations alone. So pleased you are enjoying my blog. Thank you.


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