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why i otter

apparently, there is a controversy afoot. the folks who publish the oxford english dictionary and all its variations have decided to remove a number of words from their junior edition in order to make room for new ones and a number of people have, unsurprisingly, taken umbrage with their editorial decision. i'm not here to take umbrage. [a word that means offense or annoyance, but which used to refer to a shadow, or the shade cast by trees and which, in fact, comes to us from the latin word for shadow: umbra.] i'm here to be perplexed.

now, the oxford junior dictionary is not the same as the regular o.e.d. it's intended for children ages seven to nine and it contains about four thousand words- supposedly the ones that seven to nine year olds are most likely to look up. that means that the vast majority of english words aren't going to make it into "my first oxford" and therefore decisions do have to be made. in theory, those decisions come from an analysis of what words are being used [yes, there are metrics for such things] and what definitions are being sought. but i have to say that i'm inclined to ask for some backup regarding what's been removed and what's been included.

a group of well-known writers wrote a letter of complaint to oxford university press, on the basis that the words removed [a process that took place over a period of years, from 2007 to 2012] were almost exclusively to do with nature, while most of the words added had to do with technology. their argument is that, by limiting the access that children have to words about the outdoors, o.u.p. is contributing to the problems of overly-insulated, under-active children being raised around the western world. the counter-argument, of course, is that all o.u.p. is doing is reflecting the realities of how language is used by youngsters in their target demographic. it's not their job to fix the ills of society, not even a little bit. it's a chicken and egg sort of argument: if children aren't interested in knowing certain words, there's no point in including them, but if children don't have the words to describe or discuss what they see, then the topic will become frustrating for them. [i know that it's jejune to act like the only place kids can turn to for language references is the o.e.d., but i still think that the larger point is valid. when you take away words, you take away people's ability to describe certain things, ideas and experiences.]

some of the words trimmed from the book include "acorn", "buttercup", "lobster", "mussel" and "oyster", "almond", "fern", "moss", "cauliflower", "newt" and, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, "otter". my first reaction is to wonder why today's children hate seafood so much, but then i thought that maybe the deletion is a way of actually forcing them to eat it: they can't say they don't like certain foods if they don't know what they're called. doesn't bode well for kids with almond allergies, though.

the exclusion of other words does imply that children are experiencing less variety in nature than they were years ago. growing up in a small-ish city, i remember seeing buttercups everywhere in the spring, but i don't recall seeing them a lot in my travels around montreal. [given the weather conditions outside at the moment, i'm guessing it'll probably be a few months before i can confirm that.] the desire for uniformity in suburban north america is such that plants like ferns, moss and buttercups are likely to be ripped out as an affront to grass. so maybe kids don't have much use for those words. [the removal of "budgerigar" and "hamster" says more to me about pets that parents don't want to have to buy than it does about the interests of children. "you want a pet like melanie has, suzette? what kind of animal is it? well if you can't tell me, i can't get it for you, can i?"]

on the other hand, some of the new inclusions seem a little bizarre. sure you have "blog" and "mp3 player" and "attachment" [um, do people realise this word has meanings that have nothing to do with email? because calling it a technology-specific word kind of implies they don't], but you also have "block-graph", "chatroom" and "broadband". i'm not a parent, but i have to wonder, what exactly are these children up to? are block-graphs really being assigned to seven year-olds? because this is how wikipedia defines a block graph:

In graph theory, a branch of combinatorial mathematics, a block graph or clique tree[1] is a type of undirected graph in which every biconnected component (block) is a clique.
Block graphs are sometimes erroneously called Husimi trees (after Kôdi Husimi),[2] but that name more properly refers to cactus graphs, graphs in which every nontrivial biconnected component is a cycle.[3]
Block graphs may be characterized as the intersection graphs of the blocks of arbitrary undirected graphs.

grade two math has gotten complicated.

actually, what "block-graph" is referring to in this sense is what wikipedia would call a bar graph. one of those things where you show results or comparisons with little coloured rectangles. i have no idea why the block-graph should warrant its own entry, as opposed to just being dealt with in the general definition of graphs. perhaps "graph" isn't in the junior dictionary? so block-graphs are being favoured now? screw you, hard to read line graphs and pie charts that leave us feeling hungry. go blocks or go home!

even allowing for the blatant anti-pie prejudice that's evident in their selection, i do think that it's perfectly reasonable that children could require a block-graph for an assignment. [i guess they wouldn't have a choice, since they couldn't describe any other form of graph.]

i'm a little leery of the inclusion of "chatroom", but i can get it. "a chatroom is a place where you can go and discuss topics of interest until someone with the user name nambla69 ruins it for everyone". i guess that you want to be prepared for that eventuality.

but i have to admit that i'm puzzled what use kids of that age would have for "broadband". i know that children are way more technologically sophisticated than i was [not difficult], but are they really at the stage of setting up their own networks now? are the political issues associated with broadband connectivity and control of the internet a big topic at eighth birthday parties? [do kids still have birthday parties? or do they just do a google hangout?]

one exclusion did amuse me a little, which is "blackberry". oh research in motion, how you have fallen. your name, once synonymous with smart phone devices, now refers only to a tart fruit that's of no interest to children, because they probably never hear of it.

on the other hand, that does raise an interesting possibility: if people want to get those words back in the dictionary, why don't they just start using them to refer to something tech-related? cauliflower phones. lobster game controllers. otter bluetooth devices! because if these words have to be included for their modern usages, then the archaic, natural definitions would need to be included as well.

sometimes i'm just so clever.

in the meantime, if you want to have some sadistic fun, print up the photos i've used here and post them around the house for your child, or any visiting children to see. when they ask what these adorable creatures are, tell them they should go look up "otter" in their oxford junior dictionary. pour yourself a glass of wine and take comfort in the fact that we all have to be a little villainous some times.


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