“Hamster,” “Ox,” “Otter,” and Other Natural-World Words Removed from Children’s Dictionary

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Granted, if children’s dictionaries were never updated, they might be learning “A is for alchemy,” or “B is for bellows.” (Feel free to add your own outdated faves.) But it nettled more than few scrappy scribes to see some of their favorite childhood outdoorsy words flung into the moat of history. As reported by Alison Flood in The Guardian:

“A” should be for acorn, “B” for buttercup and “C” for conker, not attachment, blog and chatroom, according to a group of authors including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion who are “profoundly alarmed” about the loss of a slew of words associated with the natural world from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and their replacement with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

The 28 authors…warn that the decision to cut around 50 words connected with nature and the countryside from the 10,000-entry children’s dictionary, is “shocking and poorly considered” in the light of the decline in outdoor play for today’s children.

They can caterwaul all they like, of course. Who’s more merciless than a children’s dictionary editor? And yet, really, Oxford. You added the word “celebrity”?

The likes of almond, blackberry and crocus first made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity in the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007, with protests at the time around the loss of a host of religious words such as bishop, saint and sin. The current 2012 edition maintained the changes, and instead of catkin, cauliflower, chestnut and clover, today’s edition of the dictionary, which is aimed at seven-year-olds starting Key Stage Two, features cut and paste, broadband and analogue.

The withering wordsmiths say the understand the need to introduce new words and insist their beef is not just neurasthenic nostalgia.

“There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing,” they write, pointing to research which found that a generation ago, 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, compared to 10% today, with a further 40% never playing outdoors. “Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences,” they say.

The campaign has been pulled together by Laurence Rose, who works for the RSPB and who provided a list of words taken out, including hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster and panther.

Now in truth, a kid can probably muddle through life without a whole lot of kingfisher references. But to take out hamster? What are they gong to call those guys? Pudgy mice? Indeterminate classroom pets? Animate slippers?

And more profoundly:

Motion, the former poet laureate, said that “by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.

“Their defence – that lots of children have no experience of the countryside – is ridiculous. Dictionaries exist to extend our knowledge, as much (or more) as they do to confirm what we already know or half-know,” said Motion.

So perhaps it’s time for a rallying cry: Save the hamster!

And while we’re at it, save the idea that the outdoors is a place for kids. — L.

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You're doing WHAT to me?

You’d never dump me, your furry friend, from the dictionary…would you? 

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32 Responses to “Hamster,” “Ox,” “Otter,” and Other Natural-World Words Removed from Children’s Dictionary

  1. Linda Wightman May 30, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    Dictionary? What is this concept of which you speak? Although a children’s dictionary was once a prized reward for our oldest child, and I remember the thrill of merely browsing through all the words, times have changed. The dictionaries in our house now get about as much use as the encyclopedias and most of our recipe books.

  2. JR May 30, 2016 at 11:46 am #

    This is an interesting development. It hadn’t occurred to me prior to reading this story that the “switch” from words regarding natural things to technological things would even be a “thing.” I can see why this could be the start a troubling trend.

    I have a suggestion…maybe it’s a good one? I ask my son (7yrs old) to give me a word that is NOT listed on his homework or list of vocabulary that would meet the criteria for the activity. EX: “A” words, “B” words, animals, nouns, etc.) In this way I show him that he is not bound to just the words given to him.

    The article remind me of a lyric I once heard;

    This time the branches are mine
    A valiant effort so close
    To the heels of courage
    When human nature
    Is hardly any nature at all

  3. Alanna May 30, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    It is hard to understand why they would remove the word hamster when it is such a common pet, and kids might look it up when searching for information after having bought one at a pet store. Also, most kids seem to already know the meaning of the technological words. It’s the words that were removed that they don’t know. This makes very little sense.

  4. Warren May 30, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    Car trips with the kids never involved dvds or any other tech. We played a word game . Each person in turn had to name something in the chosen category, animal, vegetables , place or whatever. The rule was your word had to start with the last letter of the word from the previous player.

    As the kids got older the category difficulty went up. 25 & 17 and they still love playing it even when just chilling on the deck.

  5. EricS May 30, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

    Great. Even more reason why kids can’t speak proper english, with correct grammar. It’s all phonetics or abbreviations. Like instead of saying “crazy”, kids use “cray cray”. Or saying “oh my god”, they are saying “o.m.g.”. Like saying the full sentence is just to hard and complicated for them. lol Millennials. How I fear for the future of humanity.

  6. Powers May 30, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Before I go look it up, I just wanted to point out that I have no clue what a “conker” is.

  7. Sandy Rozek May 30, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Another neat car word game is license plate scrabble. Mom or Dad picks a license plate on a close-by car, and the game is who can first think of a word that uses the letters on the license plate in the same order. Proper nouns are not allowed. So a license plate JK 473 could be joke or junk or anything else with the j and the k in that order. LNG 27 could be lemming or
    linger or liking or milking or…..The ones with three letters can be quite challenging, depending on the letters. I think I invented this game, but I’m not sure.

    I agree that the removal of nature words from children’s dictionaries and references is a sad and harmful occurrence.

  8. Powers May 30, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    “Also, most kids seem to already know the meaning of the technological words. It’s the words that were removed that they don’t know. This makes very little sense.”

    Alphabet books don’t teach vocabulary; they teach phonetics, spelling, and reading, by associating initial sounds with already-known words. Using words the kids are familiar with is the whole point.

  9. Powers May 30, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    Whoops — sorry, we’re not talking about alphabet books, but dictionaries. My bad.

  10. Tim May 30, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    It sounds like a well intentioned failure, unless of course the whole point was to indoctrinate children into the drudgery of helping the man get richer.

  11. Vaughan Evans May 30, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

    Even if you DO live in a big city-you are often very close to nature.
    I live in Vancouver-in the Province of British Columbia, in the Dominion of Canada.
    The people there are very close to nature

    (1)They like to sit on the beach-at English Bay-and watch the sun go down
    (2)There are many wooden parks-in Vancouver-and in suburban Burnaby, Coquitlam,and North Vancouver(The latter consists of two cities-each with heir own mayor)
    I like to walk at these parks, and observe wild flowers, and berry buses-and see if I can identify them.
    (3)Along the railroad tracks are boulevard trees-which colour their leaves in autumn. Wild blackberries-also grow along railroad right-of way(Blackberries, are sun-loving, not shade-loving.
    (4)There are Himalaya blackberries. (This species is considered an invasive plant. But it is a useful plant. Birds and bees love blackberries.)
    (5)We have two regional parks-Stanley Park and Queen Elizabeth Park(the latter was named after the mother of our current monarch.) In both parks beautiful flowers are nurtured-by gardeners-who give them tender loving care.
    (6)Near Vancouver is the City of New Westminster. A flower arranger-uses flowers-to convey this message.

    The City of New Westminster Welcomes You

    The City of New Westminster welcomes you.

  12. LadyTL May 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    It bothers me the number of foods and common pets they are removing as well. Why remove things kids would be eating or having as pets? Do they think no kid would have a goldfish or a hamster? That none of them would eat an almond or some cauliflower? Also they are adding in words that aren’t actually single words in their place. MP3 player would properly be two entries not one, it is two words after all. Same for cut and paste which is three. They seem to be adding way more entries which are multiple words in the place of fairly common foods and animals. Why teach kids to think multiple words are one word?

  13. Vaughan Evans May 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    I have thought of a way to bring back the natural world to children.
    Use Rope skipping stunrs-as a way to broaden children’s natural horizons.

    EXAMPLE
    P
    I made a parody to the song called “The Austrian”
    The parody goes like this:

    A British tourist went rambling
    On the Garibaldi Way
    And came upon a lupine
    Merrily it did sway.
    -When he word “lupine” is sung, the child “runs into” the skipping rope-through the “front door”-and jumps to the beat -and tempo during the chorus
    Each child represents an alpine flower. If there are four children, one could be the cinquefoil, one could be the helipotrope;, the fourth could be the purple aster.

    After the four girls have played their part, EVERYONE sings this song.
    The growing season is very short
    Autumn will be on its way
    In October, frost will sprinkle us
    Autumn colours will be gay
    In November snow will bury us
    We will dream our cares away
    And next August, we will bloom again
    Hoe you’ll come back some day.

    Autum is on its way
    In October, frost will sprinkle us

  14. Peter May 30, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    Even more reason why kids can’t speak proper english, with correct grammar. It’s all phonetics or abbreviations. Like instead of saying “crazy”, kids use “cray cray”. Or saying “oh my god”, they are saying “o.m.g.”.

    And the worst part? They won’t get off my lawn!

    Guess what? Times change and language changes along with it. “Cray cray” and “OMG” are no worse than Hip, Groovy, Far-out, and Gnarly.

    I’ll admit that I occasionally have to make a trip to Urban Dictionary to figure out what these kids are talking about nowadays (TBT?) because I’m old and no longer a hep cat or with-it or a righteous dude.

  15. Elin May 30, 2016 at 4:11 pm #

    I reacted to magpie. At least in my country they are so common that even extreme city kids would recognize this bird. The Swedish word for magpie is not too far from the word for satan and I was laughing my head off the day my daughter was in the park walking around pointing to magpies screaming “Satan!!! Satan!!!”.

  16. lollipoplover May 30, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

    So is “heron” out of the dictionary and replaced by “heroin”?
    It wouldn’t surprise me…

    This is very timely as we just came back from a beach trip with several other families. While the boys spent the hot day at a sports tourney, I took the girls and friends in a convertible to get some ocean breezes. Not a cloud in the sky, no traffic, great music, and a girl in the back seat complaining about her reception on her cell phone.

    We got to the beach, ran to check out the water (freezing), and came back to one of the younger girls sitting in a beach chair…on an ipad. She was playing a game, loudly, and I asked her to turn the volume down so I could hear the waves. I also asked the mom if she was worried about this ipad getting sand in it (it was cracked) and watched in horror as this girl finally got up to join the other kids digging a hole and tossed it carelessly in the sand. This mom said no, this was her backup ipad. Whaa?

    Today, this girl called and asked my daughter if she wanted to go to the movies. What movie? Angry Birds.
    About a video game! It was raining so she went (and said it was actually very good).
    Still,a movies about a game app? These kids and their electronics…I’m starting to sound and act like a crotchety “Get off my lawn” person.
    Get off the electronics!!!

  17. pentamom May 30, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    Oh, goodness, Peter, I think there are a lot of potential bad effects to excessive electronic usage by kids but slangy language and grammar isn’t one of them. Non-standard grammar in casual speech has been around as long as written language — because until there was written language, there wasn’t really such a thing as “standard grammar” to compare it with.

  18. Theresa May 30, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

    Be glad they’re not changing the meaning of the words. I know two that been changed. Business and skim milk have had their meanings changed.

  19. Donald May 30, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

    How about xbox 360 games?

    A is for Alone in the Dark.
    B is for Battle Fantasia.
    C is for Call of Duty.
    D is for……..

  20. hineata May 30, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

    This will be a country-by-country issue, Lenore. I for example am annoyed by the removal of kingfisher and magpie , but hamster would be a non-event as kids here only hear about them on TV. Our kids keep guinea pigs. And the OUP is obviously a British construct….do they have hamsters in Britain? I would look up the OUP, but, darn……☺

  21. hineata May 30, 2016 at 6:50 pm #

    Mussel, oyster and newt seem insane, too. How will they ever do Macbeth or even Lewis Carroll? I still read the Walrus and the Carpenter to rapt groups of 7 and 8 year olds. Removing seafood references from the dictionary of an island nation seems a little shortsighted…

  22. Anna May 30, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

    Meh – who really cares? Children’s dictionaries are useless anyway; or so I found in childhood, and I was quite bookish. The limited vocabulary makes it useless as a reference book, and what else are you going to do with a dictionary? Just give your kid a pocket OED already!

  23. James Pollock May 30, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    I don’t get it. Never in my life have I encountered a hamster outdoors.

    In the ’70’s, every kid had a hamster for about 3 months. Now… not so much.

    Besides, the only reason kids are looking at their Oxford Children’s Dictionaries at all is so they can spell the word right when they Google it.

  24. James Pollock May 30, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

    “Still,a movies about a game app? ”

    WarGames came out in, I want to say 1982?

    “The Wizard” was around 1989.

    Since there’s been Super Mario Brothers (ugh), a couple of Mortal Kombat movies, there was a Final Fantasy movie. Then there was “Pixels”

    Besides the “Angry Birds” movie, you might want to check out “Ratchet and Clank” (although it sounds like you wouldn’t). I’ve lost track of where the big-budget “Halo” movie is, right now.

    Videogames currently generate more revenue, total, than motion pictures do.

    And why not? If boardgames can have a movie (“Clue”), why not videogames?

  25. zzmel May 30, 2016 at 9:53 pm #

    This is so dumb, I wonder who had the bright idea to tamper with words kids should know.about that is so harmless. A lot of kids have hamsters and theymake nice pets. So do turtles, tropical fish, and probaly 100,000 other species. You get the gist. Where is nature going? The natural wonders of our natural habitat toward any animal is slowly disappearing. The human element is the cause. But to take away the wonders for children to see that what nature provides, their chances are steadily dimishing. Of couse they can see it in photos and video’s but it is not certainly the same.

  26. Aimee May 31, 2016 at 10:15 am #

    Why do the editors feel compelled to remove words…. can’t new words just be added to the dictionary?

    For the record, my teenage son is likely going to work in a _lobster_ pound this summer. If so, we are very likely to eat a wonderfully large amount of _lobster_ and _mussels_, and he may even see the occasional sea _otter_ in the harbor.

    I just had to write that on a _lark_.

    Good grief.

  27. Papilio June 1, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    I’m just sitting here frowning… It’s for seven-year-olds? What do they have to do with ‘analogue’? (Wouldn’t outdated technology be even worse in a childrens’ dictionary than stuff they could encounter in a park or, I don’t know, animal shelter?)

    @Powers: “Before I go look it up, I just wanted to point out that I have no clue what a “conker” is.”

    I guessed it’s a ‘kastanje’, looked it up, was right, and now I’m ridiculously proud of myself 😛 (There’s a game ‘conkers’ played by English kids.)

  28. Heartfruit June 1, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    One mistake people often make when it comes to dictionaries is that they shape the language. They do not, the reflect it. Taking natural words out of a Children’s Dictionary should alarm us but because it show that children have become creatures of the indoors rather then the out.

    That said, I do wonder how often kids even use Children’s Dictionaries any more. From about the age of 6 my daughter would look up words online rather then in her printed dictionary.

  29. pentamom June 2, 2016 at 2:08 pm #

    Heartfruit, I don’t think it’s true that dictionaries do not shape the language. There is a recursive effect. Particularly when a dictionary is abridged, and is aimed at children, the presence or absence of a word will have some effect on whether a child will become familiar with it and incorporate it into his working vocabulary.

    It’s true that the function of dictionaries is descriptive, but that does nto mean that editorial choices in dictionaries have no effect on popular vocabulary.

  30. pentamom June 2, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    Children’s dictionaries aren’t so much for “looking up” words. They’re for bookish kids to pore over at an age younger than the designed age, and learn new words.

  31. LTMG June 3, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    On account of children denied the chance to be kids free of overweening structure, Edward Gorey wrote and drew, “E is for Elliott who died of ennui.” Search for this and the telling picture Gorey drew to accompany the words.

  32. HotInLa June 4, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

    If they’re really just wanting to introduce new words, there’s no reason to remove words. Is there some limit on the number of words that can be included in the dictionary now? This is absurd.