Thursday, December 11, 2008

On dictionaries and stupidity

Via Random Distractions and Muddy Island I find this Telegraph story:

Oxford University Press has removed words like "aisle", "bishop", "chapel", "empire" and "monarch" from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like "blog", "broadband" and "celebrity".

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society.

The general blogger reaction to this odd news is one of sadness and dismay. My initial reaction was to wonder why children need their own special junior dictionaries anyway. Isn't this just perpetuating stupidity?

And actually, what are dictionaries for? We mostly use dictionaries when we're not sure what a word means or how you spell it. Therefore wouldn't it make more sense to include words that children use infrequently - on the grounds that when they do come across 'aisle' they'll need to look it up - rather than things like 'blog', which they'll all know anyway?

But dictionaries also include words like “and” or “big” – which surely nobody ever looks up, since if you didn’t understand the word in the first place you’d never understand the definition. So are dictionaries supposed to provide a snapshot of the language as it is used and record the zeitgeist, in which case these amendments are justifiable?

This story is I suppose saddening not because the dictionary has changed but because the world has. I wouldn't worry too much about the effect the dictionary will have on kids' ignorance: they'll all use Wikipedia and Google anyway and as far as that goes they have access to more knowledge than any generation in history.

Which is a dangerous thing, of course. We don’t want our children growing up too clever. As I said on Thought Experiments, clever people gave us esperanto, Marxism, concrete tower blocks, the atom bomb, the terrible causes of global warming, the terrible solutions to global warming and The Future.

I vote stupid, I vote junior dictionaries.


monix said...

Amusing and clever as always. People are saddened and dismayed because the OUP has decided to vote stupid.

Millie's Mum said...

In my experience, children mainly use dictionaries to look up rude words and then point them out to each other, smugly. The other words are just fillers to make the experience more challenging, so it doesn't matter what the words are.

If they need to spell or define a word they either ask someone else, or make it up.

Brit said...

Heh heh - now that does have the ring of truth, MM.

Vernon Howell said...

'The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society.'

The usual incantation of an elitist 'intelligentsia' which believes it is virtuous to keep other people's children in a state of ignorance. As for their own offspring, they usually ensure they are quite well informed and well-educated.