15 Apr '16

When Words Die

The lexicon of a language is like a living organism, constantly growing while simultaneously disposing of that which no longer performs its function. New words spring to life as others fade away into obscurity, thereby formulating and substantiating the zeitgeist. The proliferation of social media and other technological advancements has resulted in numerous new words to be officially added to the English language via The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. While some new words warrant much fanfare in the press and blogosphere, words that have fallen out of favour or words that are no longer relevant just seem to fade away and become obsolete and, finally, all but extinct.

The path to deletion from a dictionary is not unlike the process of being added to a dictionary. Merriam-Webster does not want its flagship dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, to become too large or voluminous. In order to keep the dictionary manageable, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper told The Atlantic in a recent article that entries are dropped with each new addition. Editors of the dictionary scrutinize sources such as Google Books, LexisNexis, WordNet, user trends on the Internet and other dictionaries for frequency of use and how words are being used in context. Stamper states that in order for a word to remain in the dictionary "a defunct or obsolete word must appear in books that the average high-school or college student is aware of." Abbreviations or biographical entries are common targets for deletions if usage becomes infrequent. Once usage of a word falls below a certain threshold, the word is considered for deletion from most dictionaries but often it is assigned an obsolete meaning if the word in question is being used with a more contemporary meaning.

The road to lexical obsolescence is not 'cut and dry'. Words can morph—take on new meaning, or lay dormant before being revived. The word naughty is an example of how meanings of words can change over time. Centuries ago, naughty meant that you had naught or nothing: you were destitute. Then naughty came to mean evil or immoral, whereas today naughty is used to describe mischievous or improper behavior, although evil or wicked is included in most dictionaries as an optional definition. The word divest has become popular of late in the media due to the social pressures being put on institutions to manage funds responsibly and ethically. About 300 hundred years ago, to divest meant the process of undressing or alternatively to deprive one of their rights and possessions. Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan has an interesting article and Ted Talk on the ever-changing meaning of words in a vibrant language. (See link above)

Words can also be resurrected. In the 1990s, the word chad, which is defined as 'a small paper disk or square formed when a hole is punched in a punch card or paper tape', was being considered for deletion by lexicologers due to its infrequent use. Then came the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election and the controversial Florida vote count. When a word is central to a Supreme Court decision, there is no question that it warrants being maintained as part of the lexicon. As a consequence of the election controversy, chad was promptly removed from the list of possible deletions. The word snollygoster which means an unprincipled but shrewd person was removed from the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 2003. After hearing about the demise of the word, groups of people banded together and began using the word as frequently as possible in social media, blogs and magazine articles. Stamper says that Merriam-Webster "will certainly consider adding it back" if its use continues to become more frequent. Considering some of the antics being displayed by contenders for the U.S. Presidency, snollygoster may officially be back in the lexicon sooner than imagined.

See the companion entry to this post (found here) for a list of words recently deleted from the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.





About The Author

An accomplished author, Jason brings a diverse skill set to MKTG. He originally started at the company as a research assistant and, after spending time overseas, returned to the team in 2008 as Manager of Special Projects. In his current role, Jason oversees MKTG’s special projects, with a particular focus on employee development, training, multimedia translation requests and other large-scale or special-skill opportunities.