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Boy, 7, kicks off global dictionary row

Oliver Saunders, aged seven, sparked a worldwide debate on the dictionary
Oliver Saunders, aged seven, sparked a worldwide debate on the dictionary

When a seven-year-old County Down schoolboy sat down to do his homework last week he had no idea he was about to kick off a worldwide row that would engulf one of the UK’s oldest publishing houses.

Oliver Saunders was receiving help with an English exercise from his mother Lisa when they realised ‘moss’ and ‘fern’ had been deleted from the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

Mrs Saunders from Dromore compared six editions of the dictionary since the 1970s and was mortified to find that a raft of words relating to British history and nature had been stripped out and replaced with ‘modern’ vocabulary to do with the internet and celebrity.

The local woman decided to go public with her discovery. Within days it had been picked up and broadcast by media outlets from New York to Auckland, sparking angry exchanges between online commentators and prompting Oxford University Press to defend its changes. American readers were frustrated by the removal of Hallowe’en words like ‘cauldron’ and ‘cackle’, while Canadians were infuriated that their national symbol, the beaver, had been phased out.

One internet commentator said: "How sad and almost unbelievable to think those words are being removed. Do those printing the books really think these things are such a dying breed?"

Another said: "It’s yet another assault on our cultural and heritage. It is dumbing down the English language."

Other words no longer deemed necessary for kids were festive terms such as ‘mistletoe’, ‘carol’ and ivy’, words linked to folklore like ‘goblin’ and ‘elf’, and a host of words relating to Christian ceremonies.

In their place the dictionary’s editors drafted in ‘blog’, ‘MP3 player’, ‘voicemail’ and words to do with citizenship and multi-culturalism.

Mrs Saunders told the Belfast Telegraph: "I was surprised by the scale of people’s reactions — it was a bit overwhelming to see all the comments coming in online — but this is the power of the internet. All around the world, whether you’ve emigrated to Australia or America, words can join us together. That’s why people attach their own sentimentality to the issue when words are taken away."

She added: "The Oxford Junior Dictionary is aimed at seven-year-olds and upwards. Children are impressionable, and this is a big shift that could store up problems for the future."

Vineeta Gupta, head of children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press, said the dictionaries were compiled with help from teachers and were designed to reflect the age-related school curriculum.

"When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers.

"That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons.

"People don't go to Church as often as before.

"Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism, which is why some words such as |‘Pentecost’ or ‘Whitsun’ would have been in 20 years ago but not now."


Words taken out

Carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe, dwarf, elf, goblin, abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar, coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade, adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

Words put in

Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue

Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro

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