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Willow’s Disappearance: Is Nature Outdated?

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Children and Nature, Cindy Murphy,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgCan anyone tell me what “badot” means? Or the definition of “hoddypeak”? You’d be hard-pressed to find them in any dictionary except those containing curious, outdated or obsolete words.

How about “willow”? There’s at least one well-used dictionary that considered the word outdated, and eliminated it from its pages.

Shannon and the willow 

Keith took Shannon fishing this weekend; she’s become quite the fisherman this summer. When I got home from work Saturday, she excitedly told me all about their morning. “We caught 30 fish, Mom, and I caught way more than Dad.” (He was too busy baiting her hooks to actually do much of his own fishing.) “You should have seen the bass I caught! It was thiiis big,”she said, stretching her arms apart as far as they would go. Yes, she certainly has become quite the fisherman, learning already how to exaggerate the catch. “It was the best day ever!”

And what fishing trip would be complete without trying to catch minnows with your bare hands as they dart in and out between your feet? Shannon is my nature-lover; my outdoorsy girl who would rather play in the dirt than play on the computer. When she visits the nursery were I work, she always heads to her favorite spot – under the huge canopy of the willow. She swings on the rope hanging from this grand tree, out over the pond which has been home to a pair of green herons for the past three years. At our home, she picks blackberries from the vine, little bouquets of the violets and dandelions that make up much of our lawn, and hunts the elusive four-leaved clover for good luck. She watches butterflies sip the nectar from the blooms of flowers, and the little wren hop through the garden. In fall, her wishes come true when she gets the bigger half of two acorns connected together by the stem that we pull apart like a wishbone.      

All of the words in bold in the above paragraph, and throughout this post, along with several other words pertaining to nature, totaling more than 50, have been eliminated from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make room for tech words such as MP3 player, blog, broadband, voicemail, and chatroom.

Kevin Coyle, the National Wildlife Federation’s vice president for education and training says of the removal of the words, “Making room in the junior dictionary for a new lexicon of technology and communications may be a good thing for children, provided they are not also denied definitions as basic as that of the flower growing on their own lawn.”

I don’t think too many kids would complain about not finding “spinach” in the dictionary … or on the dinner table for that matter. There are many other resources available which a child can learn about the things eliminated from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. To be fair, junior dictionaries are not meant to be comprehensive reference tools containing every word in the English language. They contain words commonly used by children aged 7 to 11. But the deletion of words pertaining to nature delivers what kind of message? That a raven is less important than an MP3 player? That our natural world is not as important as the virtual one? Coyle claims, “Several of the words removed to facilitate participation in the virtual world were cut at the expense of some creatures such as the otter that have been struggling for survival in the real world.”

Children spend more and more time in the virtual world, childhood obesity is on the rise, and a disconnection between our kids and nature is becoming more prevalent. Yet studies have proven that children benefit not only physically by getting outside in the fresh air, but also regular exposure to nature results in kids who are more attentive and have better concentration in school. Programs such as the nationwide “No Child Left Inside” campaign are cropping up everywhere in an attempt to get children involved in gardening and reconnected to nature. The decision of Oxford University Press to the eliminate nature words seems contradictory to everything these programs are trying to accomplish.

It’s the 2007 edition of the dictionary that drew the attention of the public, but not right away. The elimination of the words might have quietly escaped notice, but in late 2008 a concerned mother in Ireland helping her son with his homework noticed words such as “fern” and “moss” were not in her son’s dictionary. A British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, picked up the story, publishing an on-line article which drew hundreds of responses from readers. From there, it spread across the Internet via the world’s bloggers. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I heard about it when a friend rattled off a list of words, and asked me what they had in common.

Perhaps I am outdated – a badot (silly) old hoddypeak (fool) for thinking that a child would be better off learning how fast a cheetah can run rather than knowing the speed of broadband.  I understand the need for dictionaries to be updated as the world changes. New words develop while others become outdated and obsolete. “Hoddypeak” may be outdated, and “badot” is obsolete, but last time I checked, violets still bloomed, willows still weeped, and minnows still swam. These things are not obsolete. Are they outdated? Vineeta Gupta, who heads the children’s dictionary department at Oxford University Press, is quoted as saying, “The decision to remove nature words is due to the reduced presence of nature in children’s lives.” How terribly sad.


I wonder if the next edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary will contain “Nature Deficit Disorder.”