Poet rescues nature words from dictionary's trash heap

Dec 14, 2017

The "Oxford Junior Dictionary" is aimed at kids seven and up. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive book – that’s why it has a limited space for word entries.

So, when the publishers added words like "analog," "broadband" and "chatroom" – other words like "ash," "beech" and "crocus" got the boot.

This got the attention of a number of writers, including Margaret Atwood. They wrote an open letter to Oxford University Publishing, explaining why they thought removing nature terms was a bad idea.

First, research shows that as few as 10 percent of kids spend time outdoors everyday. Instead, kids spend more and more time indoors, alone, with their electronics. The authors says that’s unhealthy, and some people even argue it’s also dangerous for our environment.

“Well, if you don’t have a name for something then it kind of ceases to exist,” explains Norm Wheeler, a retired teacher who taught at Leelanau School.

“If we start dropping the names of things – concrete things – out of the dictionaries and filling them up with these quickly changing buzzwords and technological terms ... it seems like we’re doing a disservice to our language,” he says.  

Holly Wren Spaulding is doing her part to keep some of these words alive.

Holly Wren Spaulding arranges the poems in her series called "Lost Lexicon." The poems get their names from nature words which have been removed from the "Oxford Junior Dictionary."
Credit Dan Wanschura

She says when she found out what was happening to these words, she was intrigued and even incensed.

“Are these editors undermining us, and shaping the direction of culture in a way that’s nefarious?” she wondered. “Or, are they simply, in a sense, recording what’s happening in the wider culture? And I sort of landed there,” she says.

Holly is a poet. She grew up in Leelanau County surrounded by nature.

She’s using those deleted words from the junior dictionary as the basis for her newest poetry project. It’s called “Lost Lexicon.” Currently it consists of 20 poems, but she hopes to eventually expand it to 36.  The poems were printed using a letterpress – not a computer or typewriter.

Invocation: I wanted to speak with the plants and animals. As Saint Francis stroked the hare, the sow, the robin. Who knew somehow that he was a friend. - a poem by Holly Wren Spaulding

Holly describes herself as a techno-skeptic – not because she doesn’t use technology, but because she’s afraid of what it is doing to our culture. And she views her poetry as an act of conservation.

“We need language in order to understand and know things,” she says. “If we can call the thing what it is – instead of flower, call it buttercup – then there is something about that that deepens our experience of  the world around us.” 

You can learn more about Holly Wren Spaulding here.