Word for Wednesday: Y is for yesteryear.

I was reading an online article from the Guardian newspaper yesterday about the changing face of the language of childhood.  Reflecting on it now, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

Apparently the editorial team at the Oxford University Press have made some amendments and updates for the forthcoming edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, resulting in the removal of around fifty words relating to nature and the countryside.  Words such as magpie, newt, otter and hamster have been removed; replaced with words such as ‘cut and paste’, broadband and analogue.  All of these, of course, represent the increasingly digital world that our children are growing up in.

The changes have roused such passions that twenty eight notable authors, including Margaret Atwood, Andrew Motion and Michael Morpurgo amongst others, have written to the OUP expressing their concerns.

According to the Guardian, the signatories to the letter are:

‘ “profoundly alarmed” about the loss of a slew of words associated with the natural world from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and their replacement with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

[This is] “not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters.  There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing.”

“Will the removal of these words from the OJD ruin lives? Probably not,” say the authors. “But as a symptom of a widely acknowledged problem that is ruining lives, this omission becomes a major issue. The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.” ‘

This is not the first time that the OUP has faced a public outcry about changes to inclusions in the children’s dictionary.  In 2008, responding to a previous outcry, the response from OUP was that  “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”


Yesteryear (noun).

  • last year 
  • time gone by
  • the recent past
  • last year, or the recent past, especially as nostalgically recalled.

Derivation: yesterday + year.  First known use: 1870.  According to dictionary.com it was coined 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from yester(day)  year.  He was translating from the French antan (from Latin anteannum “the year before”) in refrain by François Villon: Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?, which Rossetti rendered “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

It makes me sad to think that there is almost a sense of resignation that many children of this generation are so detached from the natural world.  That it is okay for them to confine their horizons to computers, technology, and what happens within the home.

I respect the signatories for their commitment to protecting the resilience of our children’s wider language and their connection to the natural world.  But I do not think it is OUP’s responsibility – or any other publishing house for that matter – to choose words strategically, in an effort to change the way our children interact with their world.  Surely if that job belongs to anyone, it belongs to us as parents?

I also think that it would be wrong to try to stop the evolution of the language of childhood.  Of course they need to know words that we didn’t need to know when we were children; the world has changed since then!  But it is important to keep a mix of both the old and the new.  There is almost definitely room for both ‘magpie’ and ‘modem’ in their sponge-like little brains!


B is for buttercup!


16 thoughts on “Word for Wednesday: Y is for yesteryear.

    1. jenny Post author

      Thank you, Patti. It’s sad isn’t it? I doubt my little girl will suffer any lose, as I am such a nature geek! But the article did really make me think about social, familial and personal responsibility, and the role of things like dictionaries in influencing childhood.


      1. pattimoed

        I also think of how these truncated vocabularies have an impact on thinking itself. If we don’t have the words to describe a thing, emotion, or idea, how can we even think about it??

        Liked by 1 person

    1. jenny Post author

      Absolutely! Thank you for your comment. I find myself factoring in extra time these days for basic errands because little miss likes to stop and smell EVERY flower en route to our destination!!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Singbetterenglish

    That’s very sad. I had no idea that they culled words from the dictionary – I had thought they added new words as the world changed to need them.

    They were discussing something similar on the BBC radio programme Word of Mouth yesterday – the richness of language enjoyed by writers such as Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen (Bob Dyan too). It’s here, if you can hear it outside the UK http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04xp4wn

    I hope that children today will search out words for themselves – as they do with music that wasn’t easily available to people of my generation. YouTube is a wonderful method of time travel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jenny Post author

      No, I hadn’t realised either, although I suppose there has to be some thinning out, otherwise paper dictionaries would become utterly unwieldy.

      The internet is a wonderful tool for children (and adults!) to explore the world and words, I totally agree. I hope children keep that curiosity too.

      Thanks for the link – it sounds really interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Osyth

    Oddly because we were the poorest of poor when my girls were growing up I think that they had much of that yesteryear in their lives. Of course they resented it because it is implicit in a child that they be the same or as near the same as their peers as possible. And I resented it too because I wanted to give them what their friends had and I couldn’t. But now I think I was the lucky one. Time will tell if I am right – they are young women now aged 19-28, my four … time will tell if they had the better deal. Whatever time tells I know I loved reading your piece – informative and just provocotive enough it was a pleasure and I will re-read it I am sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jenny Post author

      Thank you so much Osyth, for your lovely comment. I really appreciate it.

      The commercialisation of childhood and peer pressure are tough things for parents (so much guilt!) and children alike to resist , I think. But I suspect you are probably right and you and your girls had the better deal in the long run.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Osyth

        I am working on a book which takes in quite a lot of the issues … three generations of women starting in 1932. It is an area that fascinates me.

        Liked by 1 person


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