8 nature words that defy the children's dictionary by Griselda Heppel

Here’s a nice bit of irony.  What do the following have in common?

"Bluebells" in "Beech" woods
No more "larking" around

If you’ve been following the row over the Oxford Junior Dictionary that’s been rumbling on since 2007, and now just blown up again, you’ll assume the answer is that these are some of the dozens of ‘nature’ words omitted from the dictionary, on the grounds that they are no longer relevant to children’s lives.  And you’d be right.  Together with beech, heron, kingfisher, buttercup, conker, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and a number of other words brimming with bright colours, textures and the sheer, quivering life of the natural world, they’ve had to be junked to make way for the dreariness of blog, broadband, bullet point, chatroom and voicemail. If you can come up with anything else that so encapsulates how stuffy, sedentary, imprisoning and stale is the environment in which we expect children to thrive, I’ll eat my HTML.
"Mistletoe" - no longer relevant to Christmas

 Oxford Dictionaries protest that making children aware of the natural world isn’t their job. Their task is to reflect the world that children now find themselves in, listing everyday, urban, familiar words, not ones that hark back to a more rural society. There simply isn’t room for both.  They may have a point, but it set me wondering as to what a dictionary is actually for.  Aren’t you supposed to use it to look up words you don’t know, not just the ones you do?  Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Nina Bawden, Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell are widely read by children; all of the above words will appear in an amalgamation of their works. If it’s true that children’s lives are so impoverished they no longer know what a dandelion is, how can they find out?
The holly and the - what was that plant again?

Actually, the answer is simple. As well as the space-limited Junior Dictionary (10,000 words, age 7 – 9 years) OUP publishes the Oxford Primary Dictionary (30,000 words, 8 – 10 years), which still contains these 'archaic' natural terms. Why bother with two reference works that practically overlap each other in their age range?  Forget the Junior Dictionary, OUP, and let children go straight from the Oxford First Dictionary (3,000 words, age 5 – 7) to the Primary one. Then everyone will be happy.

Poor little "buttercup"

I name this otter, "Otter"
And the irony? Well, the list at the beginning just happens to be 8 of the most popular children’s names. You can hardly find words more woven into children’s lives than what they – or their friends – happen to be called.  

In a literary world defined by high tech, internet forums and social media, children themselves will act as a living dictionary of living things - rather like the outlaws in Fahrenheit 451 who become the books that no longer exist in print. All we have to do is wait for otter, conker, beech and newt to start appearing on birth certificates.

Could be a long wait.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:



madwippitt said…
bah! humbug! - except that probably they aren't in there either. Absolutely with you on this ... except I'd let the little dears straight at the enormous and weighty adult versions with the rice paper thin pages - not quite as good as a walk in the woods, but it would give them a little exercise manhandling it off the shelf ...
Susan Price said…
It's very sad that we have this situation. I've been reading 'The Lost Words' by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. It's a beautiful book - poems matched by paintings, of adders, dandelions, magpies, acorns... It's inspired by exactly this: the words that are being lost. And with them goes centuries of tradition, knowledge, poetry...
Anonymous said…
I must get hold of that book, it sounds wonderful and haunting. And I agree, why are there so many children's dictionaries? I only remember using Collins Pocket one for simple words and moving on to full-sized adult dictionaries for words that weren't in there. Not that children shouldn't have their own dictionary; just make it a full, decent one that doesn't narrow their world. Awful that one even needs to ask for that.
madwippitt said…
pffft! straight to the adult dictionaries Griselda - I remember vividly the fury I felt as a child when I'd gone to the effort of looking up words in the Children's dictionary only to find they weren't in there ... Maybe nothing new?

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