As It Happens

B.C. students send letters to Oxford telling dictionary to bring back lost nature words

Grade 5 students on Vancouver Island were so shocked to discover that words like "otter," "raven" and "dandelion" do not appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, they decided to launch a letter-writing campaign.

Qualicum Elementary students 'flabbergasted' to learn words like 'raven' and 'otter' were scrapped in 2007

Petra Knight's Grade 5 class at Qualicum Beach Elementary School on Vancouver Island. (Submitted by Petra Knight)

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Grade 5 students on Vancouver Island were so shocked to discover that words like "otter," "raven" and "dandelion" do not appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, they decided to launch a letter-writing campaign. 

About 50 nature-related words, including "heron" and "brambles," were cut from the small children's starter dictionary in 2007 — before the kids were even born — to make room for more modern terms like "celebrity," "broadband" and "voicemail."

"I am furious at your decision," one Qualicum Beach Elementary School student wrote to Oxford Press, demanding the words be returned to the dictionary.

"I feel pretty depressed — why would you remove these words?" wrote another. 

The students mailed copies of their letters to Oxford Press and The Lost Words author Robert Macfarlane. (Submitted by Petra Knight )

The students were inspired to act after their teacher Petra Knight read them The Lost Words — a 2018 picture book by author Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris that brings the axed words back to life in alphabetical order from "acorn" to "wren."

"They were absolutely in shock, screaming out, 'No! No!' as I turned each page of the book," Knight told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"They were flabbergasted."

Personal connections to the words

For Knight's students, who spend their days surrounded by nature in Qualicum Beach, this issue is personal.

"Outdoors is a huge part of our week," Knight said while standing in the forest watching her class play among the ferns. 

"We go out twice a week and we see almost everything in that book. You know, they eat blackberries off the brambles."

Petra Knight, a Grade 5 teacher at Qualicum Beach Elementary School on Vancouver Island, holds up a copy of Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. (Submitted by Petra Knight)

One student used their letter to describe the joys of blowing on dandelions in the summer and watching dogs chase herons on the beach. Another emphatically explained why otters are their favourite animal. Several pointed out that the school's mascot is a raven.

"It was so important for me that the students' voices were heard," Knight said. "They are the future. They are inheriting this Earth."

Book renews interest in 'lost' words

Oxford's decision to cut the nature words was met with backlash when it was first announced 12 years ago.

The controversy bubbled to the surface again in 2015 when 28 authors, including Margaret Atwood, wrote a joint letter admonishing Oxford for the decision, and then again in 2017 when a petition generated more than 200,000 signatures.

Now Macfarlane's book is renewing interest in the cause.

One student says it's 'inexcusable' to remove nature-related words from the Junior Oxford Dictionary. (Submitted by Petra Knight )

"This was a moment in lexicographic analysis which spoke of a much bigger moment in culture, where childhood is becoming virtualized, interiorized — and nature is slipping from childhood, as it is slipping from all our lives," Macfarlane told As It Happens in November

"So the book was kind of a protest not against the dictionary, but against the loss."

'A slim introductory dictionary'

The students mailed copies of their hand-written letters to Oxford Press and Macfarlane on Friday, Knight said, and her colleague did the same project with his Grade 6 class.

Oxford Press did not respond to a request for comment from As It Happens, but addressed the ongoing controversy on its Oxford Education Blog last year, where it notes the Junior Dictionary is "a slim introductory dictionary containing less than 5,000 words in total."

Four hundred of those words — or 8.5 per cent — are nature-related, it noted, and some new nature words were added in 2007, including "amphibian," "sunflower" and "cobra."

"Like you, we feel strongly that nature is essential to children's lives and are encouraged to see that this is such an important issue to people," the blog post reads.

"If anything, we're heartened that this debate is addressing the relationship between children's language and nature."

Several students noted that the removed word 'raven' is the school's mascot. (Submitted by Petra Knight )

But for Knight, this is about more than 50 words in one book.

"When I think of our current world and so many people trying to preserve lost languages and here's a dictionary trying to take these words away, almost assuming that they're going to become extinct," she said.

"We've got to stand up for nature. We live in a natural world, and really hope Canada and all the teachers across Canada take it on because it's so important."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.