Losing Our Roots: In Language and in Life

Photo Credit: http://www.vaporooteraustralia.com.au/blog/
Photo Credit: http://www.vaporooteraustralia.com.au/blog/

Who gets to decide what words are removed from our vocabulary? The makers of dictionaries, apparently. Recently, I was emailed an article published in The Guardian about the Oxford Junior Dictionary in which it is revealed that the editors have decided to edit out nature words in favor of technological terminology which has become a part of the group speak of today. The article, titled Five Simple Ways to Help Your Child Get Into the Wild, reveals that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has determined to delete the words ash, beech, acorn, conker and catkin from the dictionary in favor of terms such as cut and paste, chat-room and broadband.

Ok, I’m not gonna lie, I don’t know what conkers and catkins are. After looking them up, I realize that I know them by different names. But that’s not the point. For me, it’s about the principle and what it means to have words squashed out in such a manner. As the article states, “It would be hard to find a more striking example of our alienation from the natural world, and how we are denying children a relationship with wild things.” And I, of course, agree. I never will approve of the silencing of words in any capacity. Even words that are offensive that I cannot say without offending someone of a different race should not be hushed out. They shouldn’t be used to affect hate, but the fact that they exist and have been used to injure others is not something that should be hidden or forgotten.

If you know me, you know that I often offer the opinion that the world does not work as it ought or was meant to. What I mean by this is that we live an unnatural life. I enjoy my job, but I don’t think we were meant to sit in desks for 8+ hours a day, slaving away in front of computers, forgoing fresh air and sunshine. I do it anyway because it is necessary to conform in order to survive and I clock my free time by filling the voids that feel empty.

What bothers me the most about the situation illuminated in the article is that it shows visible proof that we are continuing to move away from our roots, away from the things that matter. Obviously, these nature terms were not deemed important enough to occupy space in the dictionary any longer. These trees and other natural elements are far from extinct, and yet the editors (or someone) deemed it appropriate to do away with them.

I do understand the need to teach these new technological terms. To not know them would put children at a significant disadvantage. But, deleting the terms from nature, shows that the value of technology is exponential in comparison to the value of nature, despite the fact that it is from nature that we come.

The deletion also makes me wonder if people take the loss of nature, of plants and animals and the injuries that have been done to our planet and home, seriously. I would assume not.

Words are important. They matter. They are a way of documenting, of expressing and they say as much with their presence as with their absence. They can make things and they can break them just as easily. Trust me, I know. I am good with words. But the problem with being good with words means that you are good with their beauty but also with their ugliness (or their absence).

Deleting ash, beech, acorn, conker and catkin from the dictionary is a conscious and overt suggestion of their insignificance because, clearly, so much of our awareness is tied up in language. The Ancient Greeks did not have a way to make a dye that resembled the color blue. They were not consciously aware of the color blue and, from what I’ve read, they did not talk about the sky or the ocean as being blue. They used other colors and elements to describe it.

Finally, reading this article made me think of a response I got to an interview question at work. I was interviewing a young woman who is currently volunteering with the Peace Corps in Malawi. I asked her “What have you learned from living and working in a different culture?” Her response: “So much! I don’t know where to start. First and foremost, I’ve learned how weird I am, how most Americans are, how unnatural and exceptional our way of life is. In some ways, living in Malawi is like going back in time, back to an existence where people were more directly connected to the earth and to each other. And for most of our history as human beings, we lived like that. We are living in such a strange age, even if it feels entirely normal.”