The Oxford English Dictionary and Words

Photo taken by Paul Hertneky 8/18/2019 at Darwin’s View

I thought the OED never threw out words. That way we can always go back and reference them somehow. 

I am correct in that.⁠1 However, that doesn’t mean you’ll find them in the OED. There’s not enough room to print all the English words that have evolved and devolved, and so the OED editors have to change fonts⁠2   and determine the value—as in the current use—of words. 

Rather like putting land into Current Use. The woods exist in their present, “open space” condition, you just can’t use them “at the best and highest” use that could be made of them. The words can be used. They exist and can’t be un-existed. But they’re old. Moldery.⁠3 Unused. And so shoved out of the OED in favor of more fashionable, fabulous words that are used daily.

Example: for the 12th edition, in order to make room for new words that were in use, “cassette player”—though still in use—was  removed so that words like “mankini” could exist in our official lexicon. 

I had to look up “mankini”. The definition came with images and may I just say that, had I been in charge, that word would never have made the cut because its inclusion in the OED validates one of the most hideous examples of fashion ever. Even on an attractive body, it is an embarrassment. 

But I digress. 

I have a penchant to wreck havoc on the English language. On the page and in speech, I might have an idea, or a word but, too often, I don’t take the time to breathe and let it flesh itself out before I heave forward, writing or speechifying, hoping that eventually I will make myself understood.⁠4  That’s what I love about writing. I’m less likely to forget the idea because the writing of it slows me down just that inkling of a bit. Whereas, when I’m talking, before I reach the end of my sentence, that first thought has made way for five more, and what was I saying?

My brain is like the OED that way: ideas only get so much time before they are shoved out of the way for more ideas and once out of the way, the idea/s get forgotten. It takes work to reclaim them from the depths a conversation can cover. And who has time for digging these days?

That is why I was alarmed yesterday when a friend told me that 50 of nature’s words were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in favor of more techie words. “Blog” not “acorn”.⁠5 Not “heron”, “leopard”, “newt”, or “otter” but “chatroom”. 

I am ever behind the times. This excision apparently happened over four years ago. Fortunately, the likes of writers such as Margaret Atwood stepped forward, their pens held high, to debate and protest the loss of nature’s words. 

Their arguments aside—they no longer being in current use—I think the news hit me because it felt so violent against the animals and plants that were removed. 

Words are, in fact, powerful. They are expressions of how humans view the world. They are what set us apart—in our minds, if not in fact—from nature. I don’t know if it is, or is not, in the OED but: if a child sees a photo of a gawky, rather fat, two-legged, bulbous-beaked bird and tries to find out what it is in the OED, it would be rather a second extinction of the Dodo bird, wouldn’t it. And if the child cannot find it, how will s/he learn of that species, or even mourn the death of it?

Herons, leopards, newts, otters. Like humans, they and their habitats are all in danger and I find it ironic and a tad heartbreaking that the OED removed them from its pages. I understand why they did it. The editors’ job is not emotional work. It is about living, breathing words, and those that are not.

Yes, words live though they are not flesh and blood. They express heartless things that serve humans’ needs and purposes: “Steel”, “wire”, “connectors”. “Computer” and “automobile”. Words express concepts that actually exist, sort of: “chatrooms” and “iCloud”. They express things that aren’t tangible but feel oh-so-real and physical. “Love”.  And they give voice to expressions of things in the past the erasure or denial of which make us as a species more, less, insignificant: “Holocaust”. “Iceberg”. “Beaver”. “Keystone species”. 

Arguably, if things go the direction they are going, technologies like the internet will be moot because humans will be busy looking for food and shelter. Thereby we will be reconnected to nature. Maybe wading in a stream. Maybe looking up, startled, then awed by the elegance of a heron, or the vulnerability of a newt, or the playfulness of an otter.



2 Making the fonts smaller results in more room for more words.


4 I am relatively successful 20% of the time.