Monday 9 March 2015

New for old

Many years ago, I was on a train travelling out from Dublin in the middle of the afternoon (must have been mitching classes in college).  There were only two other people in the carriage - a mother and her infant (4 y.o?) child.  They were burbling away to each other about the contents of a picture book. I was amazed that the child could recognise and name a badger (Meles meles) even though one had never jumped up and bit him. Why was he cluttering his head with such an obscure word, I wondered.  Then again, being a normal human infant, he had an enormous amount of spare capacity in the language department, and was still several years from "peak vocabulary".  This anecdote surfaced yesterday because I heard (late!) about the outcry at changes in the Oxford Junior Dictionary OJD a wholly-owned subsidiary of OED.

Periodically, the editors at OJD have a conference and agree to sort through the contents, so that they can discard such once-essential words as cuff-link and railway porter and replace them with words that are more relevant to The Youth of Today - like selfie and twerking.  Maybe not those words because the OJD is aimed at readers aged 7-9, but you get my drift.  A few years ago the editors decided that religion was moving from centre stage in the lives of many 7-9 year-olds and their parents and they axed bishop and saint to a predictable chorus of outrage from an establishment that thought it was still essential to society. This time the rear-guard are hanging their indignation on the removal of a lot of country-and-nature words like kingfisher, heron, and otter, all of which I've had occasion to note in The Blob; but which I, a professional biologist, have only seen a couple of handfuls of times - albeit memorably and with a sense of uplift (especially the heron!).  Andrew Motion, one of the complainants and one-time Poet Laureate for the country next door, said "by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding". What that says to me is that Motion lives in his own head rather than out in field and stream paying attention to the natural world rather than merely naming its parts. And Mr Motion, I refute your Arts Block position by bringing in a far greater Science gun than me: Richard Feynman explaining the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something!

I came across a word yesterday morning that was close to the core of my being at the age of 7-9 and is now so utterly irrelevant that none of my Third Year Food Microbiologists knew the word let alone had any experience of the thing itself.  I was marking their lab-books and was delighted to read an introduction to last week's experiment that was a really interesting explanation of the differences between Micrococcus (harmless inhabitants of every natural surface with a notable capacity to tolerate drying out) and Staphylococcus (a group including some of the most serious pathogens we encounter in homes and hospitals in Ireland - think MRSA).  "Causes boils, carabuncles and mastitis in cattle", the student wrote.  The next book related a lot of the same information and wrapped up with "Causes boils, carbuncles and mastitis in cattle".  Hmmm, I thought at least student 2 can spell carbuncle.  Each student, and indeed the whole rest of the class had dutifully written down the introduction that my colleague had written in the hand-out for this set of microbiology practicals. I chastised them in class that afternoon for transcribing things from any source without engaging brain in the transmission of the information; not to mention plagiarism.  If you write it, I intoned, you are standing over it, so you'd better be sure it is [the spelling is for starters] correct.
As a child I had boils and carbuncles wherever an edge of clothing reached skin: collar, cuff, waistband.  We didn't wash all over every day back then and so the Staphylococcus on our skin had a field day and the carbuncles were a belated attempt by our immune system to keep the Staph under control.  If you still don't know what a carbuncle is, google up an image - even looking at the pictures causes a stabbing pain, so I'm not going to clip one here.  No I'd rather show a kingfisher:

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