In BfK No. 175 Sue Unstead explored how children’s dictionaries are put together and the criteria and restrictions that apply. In this article Robert Hull argues the case for a wider range of dictionaries to be available to children that will invite and enable leisurely wanderings thereby meeting children’s capacity to think with and about and be entranced by words.
Browsing in a dictionary I came across: ‘fridge: to rub, as a stocking against a badly-fitting shoe’. It was a dictionary of the ‘dialect’ of Cumberland, Westmoreland (extinguished words themselves) and North Lancashire. I was pleased – no, delighted – to find ‘fridge’ as ‘rub’.
Turning a couple of pages, in the hope of coming on more quirky oddness, I saw ‘heck’. ‘By ‘eck,’ we’d say as boys, when something surprised us. We’d no idea that a ‘heck’ was ‘a swinging gate, where a fence or wall crosses a beck’ – Lakeland for stream. A page or two later, I see that ‘pell’ is a ‘rattling shower of hail or rain’. A Cumbrian, the delicious entry says, asked whether it rained much thereabouts, replied, ‘It donks and drizzles, bit nivver cums doon in nea greet pell.’
‘Pell’ led me to ‘pell-mell’, which according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is ‘from the players of “pall mall”’, which, it says, quoting one Cotgrave, is ‘a game wherein a round box ball is struck with a mallet through a high arch of iron,’ originally in an alley named from the game. For clinching good measure, we learn that ‘palla’ is Italian for ball, and ‘maglio’ is a mallet.
But is that what dictionaries are for, to wander round in, idly?
What are children’s dictionaries for?
I’m not convinced that it is – if, at least, they’re children’s dictionaries. Take the OUP range. The Preface to the Oxford Primary Dictionary makes clear that some of the things it’s for derive from the school curriculum as currently understood. ‘Many features of this edition (2007) are designed to address the needs of National Literacy Strategy for KS 2…’ and ‘Special attention has been given to words that children will encounter in literacy classes, such as assonance, grapheme, mnemonic, and topic sentence…’ Words crucial to 8-year-olds’ grasp of the world, no doubt, but hardly likely to set their imagination tingling.
Children’s dictionaries feel at times bizarrely shackled to Literacy’s implausible view of how children grow into language. Sheila Dignan, the Junior Dictionary’s lexicographer, underscores its dependencies in assembling her response to criticisms about omissions (‘nature’ words, for instance; coot, lapwing and chaffinch are in the OUP Primary, but Literacy’s scared them off the Junior). ‘The dictionary’s main purpose… is as a reference work to be used in classrooms…’ Teachers’ views helped define its nature and lay-out. They saw it as a ‘trainer’ dictionary, the words themselves being less important than the practice on finding one’s way around dictionaries: so a dictionary is useful to the extent it helps you use a dictionary. Teachers also ‘expressed a preference for words relevant to the National Curriculum…’ Summing up for her critics she says, ‘I think perhaps the focus of your indignation should be the national curriculum itself.’ Indeed.
Some fun and fantasy do surface in the cheery OUP Rhyming Dictionaries, though a drawback here for me is that the illustrative verses too regularly imply the equation of poem with doggerel.
Usborne’s books are different, neither Literacy-oriented nor explicitly age-specific. The Illustrated Dictionary and Thesaurus, a hefty flexiback, has some lightly didactic stuff at the beginning, and does mention ‘school’ on the back cover, but otherwise seems aimed at whoever wants to use it, which one guesses would include adults and children from 7 up. The illustrations certainly will draw children in. No coot, lapwing or chaffinch though.
Their Illustrated Dictionary of Science is a sumptuous reference companion – not arranged alphabetically – ‘for students of physics, chemistry and biology’, secondary pupils, presumably. The language is academic and concise-technical; no frills or anecdotes. Even the ‘Buckminsterfullerene’ entry doesn’t tell you who he was.
Why don’t we want more dictionaries?
One dictionary, one type or set of dictionaries can only do so much. My trip from ‘fridge’ to ‘maglio’ started with a dialect dictionary, went then to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and thence to an Italian dictionary. Afterthought took me to the Shorter Oxford, where I found the dialect use of ‘fridge’.
The more trips you want to take, the more dictionaries you need, in my case rather a lot, including, to mention only those relating to words, dictionaries of riddles, colloquialisms, rhyming slang, the Vulgar Tongue 1911, pub names, rhyme (4 of those), early English, Middle English, Sussex dialect, Lancashire dialect, Barbadian, insults, imaginary words, football terms, French, Breton, Cornish, Latin, Greek, Spanish, jazz terms in Spanish, and more.
Adults are far better served than children with not just dialect dictionaries, but in general with fascinating books about words. A glance at the language reference section in any big bookstore reveals many such. Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED, for one, celebrates the OED as a great read – a continuous read in his case – and as a place where marvellous unsuspected words lurk, like the useful ‘all-overish: an undefined sense of unwell that spreads to the whole body’, and ‘onomatomania: vexation at having difficulty finding the right word’.
Where are the children’s books that do these things? They don’t seem to be there. Yet the intellectual appetite amongst children is. The 7-11 mind is an explosion in slow motion, with words not least. I remember a 10-year-old thinking it wonderful that ‘dandelion’ meant ‘lion’s teeth’, dents de lion – in the OUP Primary.
But Literacy casts its shadow further. The OU dictionaries include its privileged terms. For example, ‘haiku’ is defined in the Primary as ‘a Japanese short poem with 3 lines and 17 syllables in the pattern 5, 7, 5.’ This is misleading. The 575 ‘onji’, or phonetic symbols, in which Japanese haiku are still often written are not equivalent to our syllables. 17-syllable poems take about a third longer to read than 17 onji haiku. And a glance at any contemporary collection of original or translated haiku reveals 2, 3, or 4 line haiku, with lines of from 2 to 7 or 8 English syllables.
So even ‘looking-up’ crucial Literacy terms can result in being misled. How can one be de-misled? By looking further. Is there a dictionary of poetry handy in the room, just to check, see what else can be said? Isn’t this checking a habit children can learn? Can’t the need to get on, get back to the task, give way occasionally to doubt and curiosity? And isn’t wandering, being deflected, worth encouraging?
Not wandering, browsing idly round a dictionary when you get the chance, seems to me as perverse as hurrying along the prom on a hot day and skipping every chance of stopping for an ice-cream. It may sound like an adult pleasure, to see something glint intriguingly a bit further down the page, and go wandering off down a side-alley of other pages and references. But can’t it equally be a children’s pleasure? In the classroom?
Looking up chocolate
Children need to be safe in their dictionaries, but they need to roam as well. I looked up ‘chocolate’, defined in the OUP Primary as ‘a sweet brown food – a sweet made of or covered with chocolate – a sweet powder used for making drinks – the word chocolate comes from a Native American word chocolatl’.
I went to my Thames and Hudson Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion; it refers the seeker after ‘chocolate’ to ‘cacao’. That entry describes the drink-making process, but also fascinatingly reveals that cacao was used as money; there was a cacao currency in Yucatan as late as the 19th century.
In a classroom that believed in dictionaries that fact would be available. It would be a classroom with numerous dictionaries, including some compiled for children and some compiled for anyone, a classroom where children could go on their own browsing journeys of pleasurable discovery, seeing any one dictionary as an invitation to go beyond it, to others.
What others? Foreign languages, school subjects, proverbs, surnames, place-names. And more, many more. From my long list, I’ll choose one kind to argue for. Dialect dictionaries are full of juicy quotes, where one’s expectations of how English is likely to behave are given agreeable shoves all over the place. Indelicately so, often. In Frank A Collymore’s Barbadian Dialect (4th edition, 1970), we meet the foolish ‘piss-to-windward’: ‘Good God, George, look what this piss-to-windward done with your new saw!’ We also meet poetry and humour. ‘I got a outside ticket for the show tonight’ – no ticket.
In his Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce mischievously defines a dictionary as ‘a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic’. Children who wander through dictionaries will come to know – ‘clear as printmoonlight’, as my Sussex dialect dictionary puts it – that he’s wrong, that words change magically, and that there’s more to them than a definition can imagine.
Dictionaries referred to
Ambrose Bierce, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, Penguin, 978 0 14 118592 7, £10.99 pbk
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th Edition, revised by Ivor H Evans, Cassell 1990, 978 0 304 34004 0
Frank Collymore, Barbadian Dialect, Barbadian National Trust (4th edition, 1970)
The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion, Mary Miller and Karl Taube, Thames and Hudson, 978 0 500 05068 2
Lakeland and Iceland, comprising the Landnama Book of Iceland and a Glossary of Words in the Dialect of Cumberland, Westmoreland and North Lancashire, compiled by T Ellwood, published by Henry Froude, Oxford University Press in 1895, facsimile reprint in 1995 by Llanerch, 978 1 897853 82 5
Oxford University Press Primary Dictionary, 978 0 19 911533 4, £10.99 hbk
OUP Primary Thesaurus, 978 0 19 911516 7, £10.99 hbk
OUP Junior Dictionary, 978 0 19 911512 9, £8.99 hbk
OUP Junior Thesaurus, 978 0 19 911513 6, £8.99 hbk
OUP Junior Rhyming Dictionary, 978 0 19 911873 1, £10.99 hbk
OUP Primary Maths Dictionary, 978 0 19 911684 3, £9.99 hbk
William Parish, A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, Snake River Press, 978 1 90602 215 0, £8.99 hbk
Ammon Shea, Reading the Oxford English Dictionary, Penguin, 978 1 846 14198 0, £12.99 hbk
The Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Science, 978 0 7460 8714 5, £16.99 pbk
The Usborne Illustrated Dictionary and Thesaurus, 978 0 7460 8717 6, £14.99 pbk
Robert Hull, a schoolteacher for 30 years, is the author of two collections of poems for children, Stargazer (Hodder) and Everest and Chips (OUP). His Behind the Poem (Routledge) is a detailed study of children writing poems.