13 February 2020

Honest and Deeply Worrying

Mark Boyle, The Way Home; Tales From a Life Without Technology (London: Oneworld Publications, 2019), pp. 26-28:
A few years ago, before I rejected the internet, I was searching online for an image of a wild crab apple, hoping to make a positive identification. Instead of finding photographs of the plum-leaved or hawthorn-leaved crab, the screen was dominated by the trademarked logo of the Apple corporation. Taken aback, I typed in ‘blackberry’ and ‘orange’ to see what would happen. I was offered mobile phone deals. I hadn’t heard of Tinder at the time, but I don’t imagine pictures of wood shavings, bracken, and birch bark would have monopolised the page.

Six months later I read Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, his remarkable, place-particularising contribution to a ‘glossary of enchantment for the whole earth’. In it he revealed some of the words that had been deleted from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They included:
acorn, alder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow.
In their place, Oxford University Press had added:
attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, Chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voicemail.
The publishing company’s explanation that these are the things that now comprise a child’s life was pragmatic, understandable, honest, and deeply worrying.

In preparation for a life without the internet, a week or so before I unplugged I found a 2000 edition of the Collins English Dictionary; 1785 pages drawn from a ‘Bank of English’ consisting of examples of 323 million words. My own vocabulary has improved since getting it and using it to replace the online dictionaries I had used for years. If I wanted to understand the definition of a word in the past I would simply Google it, and by the time I had exhaled the ‘w’ of ‘now’ I’d have its meaning. But nothing else. Now if I want to find out the year Gerard Manley Hopkins died, my eye is caught by curiosities from hookworm (no thanks) to horn of plenty (another name for cornucopia — yes please) instead of a screenful of carefully targeted adverts.

Reading it is interesting. Only seven years older than the concise Oxford Junior Dictionary, there’s no mention of block-graph, blog, bullet-point, chatroom or MP3 player. There’s no entry either for currel – a word once specific to East Anglia which describes a specifically small stream – or smeuse, which Sussex farmers once called that ‘gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’.

The smartphone generation, having never played with them, will not miss words like ‘conkers’. It’s odd – when I was growing up in 1990s Ireland on a working-class council estate on the edgelands of a struggling town, no one ever asked me if I missed anything about the natural world. But the moment I choose bluebells over bullet-points I’ve found that everyone wants to know what I miss most about machines.

Willard Metcalf, Pasture, Old Lyme (1906)