Macquarie Dictionary


Buttercups or blogs?

Oxford University Press, in revising the headword list of their Junior Dictionary, gave rise to a discussion in the British press about the wisdom of removing a number of words to do with nature and replacing them with words to do with digital technology. The opponents of this change argued that it is increasingly important that children connect with nature and get outdoors for exercise and mental health, rather than becoming isolated and sedentary in front of their digital devices.

The dictionary they are discussing is for lower primary students and has a limited headword list. The editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary pointed out that all the nature words were in their Primary Dictionary, the next level up with more room for more vocabulary.

The editors would have looked at the curriculum to find that computer-related words that used to be regarded as high-school vocabulary, have become primary-school and now lower-primary terms that they need to master. Children are being taught how to function in a digital world at a very early age.

After that, it is possible that the Oxford editors perhaps placed too much reliance on corpus data unmediated by an editor’s sense of what should be in and what shouldn’t. You can argue for and against individual words at this point. I worry about the buttercup. You don’t have to venture too far outside an urban environment in the UK to encounter buttercups and they have a place in English culture. I remember that I knew about buttercups in English poetry and music long before I encountered one. It was with a sense of relief that I filled in the picture from real life. I very much doubt that children of this age discuss buttercups so it would not have high frequency in a corpus of language at this age level – and yet I think it should be in. There are various words that we could argue about in this fashion. I do, however, detect the whiff of corpus purity.

The people who are feeling outraged fall into that group who feel that the dictionary directs language and society. Do they really believe if the buttercups are reinstated all the users of the dictionary will rush outside to admire them – and to enjoy the fresh air and the company of other children?  And that is another assumption – children who use digital devices are not necessarily doing so in a solitary fashion. They may be extremely well-connected.

So really – a storm in a buttercup.

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