The State of the English Language

Written by Melissa Robertson, Chief Executive Officer at Now.

This weekend I’ve been quietly fulminating (well, actually reasonably vocally fulminating) about THE STATE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. Or rather, the recent furore around the omissions and additions to theOxford Junior Dictionary. Given that the most recent update was back in 2012 (but maintained the previous 2007 changes), this might seem like a rather belated debate. But it has gathered steam of late, and I’d like to throw my perspective into the mix.

I’ve always loved words, grammar and punctuation (as many of my brow-beaten work colleagues would testify). I grew up in a household where ‘big’ words were liberally littered into discussions as a matter of course. If we didn’t understand them, we just had to get the gist and keep up. From an early age, I knew that anathema shouldn’t have an article before it (e.g. selfie sticks are anathema to me); that the murder of Steve Biko was iniquitous; and that my uncle was quite idiosyncratic. I was one of the first people queuing up to buy Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss back in 2003.

And now I have children – three of them. It becomes a responsibility and a fascination to nurture their mastery of language, sentence structure and punctuation (Tip: the only time that there is an apostrophe in it’s is when it’s short for it is. Simple). Sure, I miss the gorgeous wrongness of words that they suddenly grow out of (my favourite example being ‘sojiz’ for ‘sausages’), but it’s great when they discover new words, even if they can’t quite spell them yet (my Mother’s Day card from my 9-year old being a brilliant, if slightly anarchic example – at least he didn’t say ‘vagina’).

So, what’s all this got to do with the Oxford Junior Dictionary (which we obviously have a hard copy of at home)? Well, a group of prominent writers (including Margaret Atwood and Sir Andrew Motion) has written an open letter to Oxford University Press bemoaning the fact that a number of words have been omitted (particularly ones linked to nature) to make way for more modern words that are deemed to be more relevant to the children of today.

Let’s look at some examples (got to love a table):



Well, forgive me for being so frighteningly analogue, but when I clean my children’s teeth with a MINT flavour toothpaste, or read The Hobbit or Harry Potter to them (full of ELVES, GOBLINS and DWARVES), or tuck into a nice BACON sarnie at the weekend, I’m going to make a point of celebrating these words. Let’s consciously and collectively eat APRICOTS, have CONKER fights, and sing CAROLS. We should all get ALLOTMENTS, and run like CHEETAHS (they are marvels of evolution – the fastest land animals on the planet for goodness sake!)

Clearly time does march on, and as new words develop, we need to arm our children with the understanding to develop (reading ‘Swallows and Amazons’ to the kids recently was a quite surreal experience). But let’s not entirely remove our children from the great outdoors, and place them inside, alone and constantly seeking affirmation through online recognition.

As the 28 writers put it:

“There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing … Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences.”