A new use for the OED?

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sat Sep 26 17:08:15 UTC 2009

The Sept. 18 issue of the TLS (formerly Times Literary Supplement) has a review of an anthropological-psychological-botanical study called The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature, by Scott Atran and Douglas Meden.   (MIT Press)   The review is entirely favorable and indeed it seems that it's a very valuable and significant work.

The authors make the thoroughly believable claim that folks in traditional societies recognize and can name far more trees that we-uns can.  The review states: To get a sense of how and when this poverty of [knowledge] has come about, Atran and Medin delve into recent history of the English language.  Tracing historical references to trees in the OED, they find that "writing about trees is less extensive now than in any other time in the history of the English language."  (p. 10, col. 3)

I don't have access to this book and don't expect to.
It's not clear to me how the OED would demonstrate this assertion.
We here, who know better, often fall into the way of writing as if the OED sprang fully developed from the brow of Jimmy Murray, rather than being produced in stages over more than a century.  I suspect that the authors aren't considering that when they look up "beech" they are seeing citations assembled by the 1890s, and when they look at "maple" they (may have been) looking at an entry revised recently, but "willow" takes them back to the 1920s or so.

And although I absolutely believe that even a bird-watcher like myself is far less aware of nature than I would be if my survival depended on awareness, I don't believe that "writing about trees is less extensive now" than in the past.  There's got to be a great deal more dendrological/botanical/ecological publication now than ever, and at least no fewer popular books and articles.  Proportional to the volume of publishing today and in the past, it might be true.   The proportion of the population today who have read and benefited from something on trees or nature, perhaps.
But this is a digression.  Perhaps someone with access to the book can clarify what the authors did.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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