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Are old English words worth fighting for?

In 2007, the editors of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary banished a bevy of terms describing the natural world.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor

In 2007, the editors of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary, convinced that their reference work “needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood,” banished a bevy of terms describing the natural world. In their place they inserted newer and supposedly more useful words describing the tamer digital realms that young people inhabit today.

Thus goodbye “acorn,” hello “attachment.” Out with “beech” and “bluebell,” in with “blog” and “broadband.” And farewell “catkin,” “cowslip,” and “cygnet,” because here come “celebrity,” “chat room,” and “cut-and-paste.” 

It’s possible, of course, that those Oxford editors had a sound rationale for their lexical cleansing. Perhaps they had read the Cambridge University study revealing that most young children can identify Pokémon species such as Spearow and Sandshrew far more readily than they can name real-life sparrows and shrews. 

But is this simply another skirmish in the language wars, an ongoing battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists? Whereas the “pre-” camp argues that a dictionary should model how language works best, the “de-” camp insists that it capture how language works now. 

In Britain, citizens of all stripes felt justified in fighting back against the decision of the Oxford editors. A change.org petition protesting the thinning of the word herd almost immediately attracted more than 200,000 signatures.

Another retro refusenik is Susie Dent, author of “Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain.” She’s doing everything in her power to guarantee that “the old markers of time” do not go the way of the pocket watch. Among her cherished favorites are the payday-friendly “fortnight” (fourteen nights, or two weeks) and the lovely-though-lapsed “sennight” (seven nights, or one week). 

Meanwhile, the curators of a website called historyhustle.com are doing their bit with “20 Awesome Historical Words We Need to Bring Back.” Thanks to them, I can now strut my knowledge that a “snollygoster” is “a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician,” while its close cousin “grumbletonians” refers to “people who are angry or unhappy with their government.” 

Given the noble cause at issue here – saving perfectly serviceable English words from extinction through disuse – I’m even willing to be branded an “ultracrepdarian.” That’s “somebody who gives opinions on subjects they know nothing about.”

Allan Fallow, the curator of #TodaysNeologism on Twitter, is filling in for Melissa Mohr, who is away on vacation until Oct. 17. 

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