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Expelled from the Word Hoard

We are all, I suppose, fairly familiar with the regular (annual?) news story about the words which, it has been decided, will be added to the Oxford English Dictionary. (In my no doubt vague or flawed recollection it always seems to be “selfie”, though I suppose there must be some other horrors, like “tasked” for the perfectly adequate “charged”, or “drive”, as in “driving innovation” or, somewhat disconcertingly, “driving traffic”.) But does the dictionary get bigger every year or with every edition? Or does something have to get bounced to make way for these new charmers?

Robert Macfarlane, in his forthcoming book Landmarks, whose subject is the immense vocabulary that once existed in the various languages and dialects of Britain and Ireland to describe the natural world, writes that a fairly recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had a number of new entries - the usual kind of thing: “attachment”, “blog”, “broadband”, “celebrity”, “chatroom”, “voice-mail” (don’t know about the hyphen there). Simultaneously, however, a number of words seemed to have dropped off, including “acorn”, “ash”, “beech”, “bluebell”, “buttercup”, “dandelion”, “fern”, “hazel”, “heather”, “heron”, “ivy”, “kingfisher”, “mistletoe”, “otter” and “willow”.

Asked to comment on this, a spokeswoman for Oxford replied that the dictionary needed “to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood”. You can see where she is coming from certainly – many urban children, sadly, don’t often come across bluebells ‑ but at another level surely a dictionary is a book which opens onto what we don’t know. How many children don’t know what a chatroom is? And if they don’t know what a kingfisher is would it not be a good idea if they could find out, particularly if the Oxford Junior has some nice illustrations?

In the meantime, as a taster, let me tell you that a gnùig in Scots Gaelic is a slope with a “scowl” or “surly expression”, a jeel is a frost in Scots and on the same theme you might fall and break your arse if the ground is glincey (slippery) in Kent.

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks is due to be published by Hamish Hamilton in March 2015.

2/12/2014