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Michelle Howard

Michelle Howard

Posted: August 14, 2009 10:34 AM

Dictionary Removes Beaver, Replaces With Blog and Blackberry


Out with the beaver!

Beaver is out and Blog is in. Another loss for team nature was the decision this year by the publisher of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to replace dozens of nature-related words like "beaver" and "dandelion" with more relevant words like "blog" and "MP3 player." As noted wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman observed, "If you can't name things, how can you love them? And if you don't love them, then you're not going to care a hoot about protecting them."

I like words. I'd hate to be the editor who had to choose which words get the pink slip this year. But come on, dandelion?

That same dictionary removed other obsolete words including heron, otter, acorn, clover, ivy, sycamore, willow and blackberry. Of course, Blackberry (the device) makes the cut for new words to add.

Let me tell you the story of the Alien Test. A teacher I know invented a way to test kids' vocabulary for things in their own back yards. The basic premise was: if you live somewhere, you probably have lots of words to describe that "where." He asked his class what to call the test. Tourist test? Visitor test? The class decided if you couldn't name at least half of the plants, animals, rocks, and other objects found in your back yard, you must be an alien. Thus, the alien test was born.

In addition to the standard definitions of alien as an immigrant or an extraterrestrial, we also find this definition: "a person who has been estranged or excluded." Education expert David Sobel says it's not so good for kids to be alienated from nature. He writes about ecophobia, a phenomenon by which the weight of the world's environmental problems turns the natural world into something to fear and avoid. Sobel says "If we want children to flourish, we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it." By the way, I hope they kept flourish in the dictionary: to prosper, grow luxuriantly, thrive. I want my kid to do that.

What does all of this have to do with our friends over at the Oxford Junior Dictionary-land? Does it matter if they trade in words from nature with words from the net?

It does.

Language has power. Throughout history, philosophers have reflected on the importance of language. It's old news: language shapes thoughts and emotions. It determines our perception of reality. The French practically had a revolution when the word "walkman" was proposed as an addition to the official language, reckoning that this move would have radical implications for their culture.

So what about those kids and their alien test? They all failed. I took the test, too, and failed. I've always considered language acquisition to be one of my talents, so here I go. I'm trying to learn the names of things in my back yard -- Epilobium, Black Phoebe, Coyote Brush, Cape Honeysuckle, Sticky-Monkey Flower, Old Man Sage. I've discovered the adrenaline rush that comes from seeing a bird in the back yard, looking it up, and actually being able to match the real bird to the book bird. (Do try this at home, but don't get discouraged, it's hard to get the bird to hold still while you try to match it up to its mug shot.)

Once I identified the happy sounding tufty-headed fellow frequenting my front yard as a Black Phoebe, they were everywhere. I took a walk on the beach- there was a Black Phoebe! At school! At the park!

Fortunately for me, I have a secret weapon in learning the language of the landscape: at work I'm surrounded by some really savvy naturalists. I asked one of them about the veritable invasion of Black Phoebes. He laughed at me, but nicely. Turns out, they're not new in town. They've always been here. I just didn't see them until I knew their name.

Bateman was right about what happens when children love nature. They want it to stick around. Thanks to piles of research, we now know that two primary factors influenced people who grew up to be noted conservationists: "Many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature."

I have another word for you: Naturalize. From the Latin naturalis, and from nasci, "to come into existence, being." It's what you do to stop being an alien and become a resident. Give it a try this week-end. You can start your own naturalization right in your own back yard.

Follow Michelle Howard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MCNaturally