The Life of Language: When Does a Word Die?

From the lecture series: The Secret Life of Words—English Words and Their Origins

By Anne Curzan, Ph.D. University of Michigan

When does a word die? The most obvious answer to this question is “whenever people stop using it.” But the highly literate world in which we live has complicated the question…

Magnifying glass over dictionary
(Image: Dynamicfoto/Shutterstock)

If you’ve never heard the word wittol, you’re not alone; it’s a great word, once you know the definition. It refers to a man knows about his wife’s infidelity and condones it—as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it—“a contented cuckold.” Wittol is an archaic word that dates back to the 15th century and is no longer commonly used. Perhaps it is a word that should be declared dead; recently, some major dictionaries did the equivalent of declaring it dead by removing it from their most current editions to make room for new words.

Learn more: Winning Words, Banished Words

One of the new additions was ginormous. Ginormous made newspaper headlines in 2007 when Merriam-Webster decided to include it in their new edition. This word feels new enough that you may think you were around to witness its birth. That may be true depending on how old you are: The Oxford English Dictionary cites the word’s origin as 1948. The word has over 60 years under its belt but was only recently added into major dictionaries.

Birth and death are the endpoints of a word; for some words, birth and death follow closely together. The word aerodrome lasted only about 100 years. It was created at the beginning of the 20th century for a balloon hangar or a small airfield before it was then removed from many major dictionaries near the end of the 21st century. For the word heart, its birth was thousands of years ago and death nowhere on the horizon.

This is a transcript from the video series The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Roots and Creation of Words

But when is a word born? Some words have existed in English since the language’s beginning: words like heart, head, man, sun, and the pronoun I. These words were part of the Germanic dialects from which English is derived. Going further back, we can trace them into Proto-Indo-European before it split off into the Germanic languages. Some of these words are so ancient in their origin that we can only hypothesize about the speakers who created them thousands of years ago.

In certain cases, words have been borrowed from other languages into English. With these, we can often pinpoint the first time a word was written down in an English document; it is possible to assume that the word was used in speech earlier than that. At some point in its development, the word was written down, perhaps not much earlier than its creation. Even with extensive analysis, experts can only approximate the moment when the word is “born.” 

For example, the word secret is borrowed from French. It first appears in 1399 in the medieval poet Langland’s work; it was probably spoken before 1399. Of course, borrowed words like secret were alive in another language before they came into English, but the moment we see them in English is when we think of them being “born” in English. Rather, we may think about them as the moment they were “adopted” into English.

Learn more about borrowed words by looking at the Norman invasion of 1066

When a speaker took the prefix multi– and attached it to slacking, the word multislacking was born.

At times, words are born into the language: They appear in English for the first time when English speakers create them. Native speakers typically do this with the resources at their disposal. We could say that words are “born” at the moment when we take a prefix and attach it to another word, like when a speaker took the prefix multi– and attached it to slacking, the word multislacking was born. As other speakers picked up the word multislacking, its life was extended. Though we don’t know who first created the word multislacking, at some point, it was adopted into the modern vernacular. This is how most new words are born: Speakers take prefixes and suffixes and attach them in new ways to create compounds. Language constantly changes as verbs are made into nouns and vice versa. It’s difficult to know exactly who created the word multislacking, but we can usually approximate the date as we track its appearance in the written language, and in part, the spoken.

Image of Edward Kasner
Edward Kasner is perhaps best remembered today for introducing the term “googol.” (Image:By Unknown – Popular Science Monthly Volume 70, /Public domain)

Occasionally, someone makes up a word in a more conscious, strategic way and receives credit, as happened with the word googol, meaning “10 to the 100th power.” The story goes like this: Googol was made up around 1938 by a 9-year-old named Milton Sirotta. His uncle, mathematician Edward Kasner, asked him for a good name for a really big but finite number. Milton’s response was googol. People say that the Internet company Google’s name may come from this word.

Sometimes a word’s birth can be pinpointed, but more often we’re guesstimating about the birth. Guesstimate is a fairly new verb: It shows up first as a noun in 1936 and shortly thereafter shifted over to verb form.

Learn more about the life of a word, from birth to death

“Dead” vs. “Archaic”

When does a word die? The most obvious answer is whenever people stop using it. If no one says the word fremian anymore—an Old English verb meaning “to do”—then we can say that this word is dead. If no one says wittol and almost no one knows what it means, then it’s probably also dead. But the highly literate world in which we live with extensive written records has complicated the question of when a word dies. Consider a word like betimes, which meant “in a short time,” or “in good time”. If a baby is crying, you could say, “She will tire betimes.” Modern English speakers would never say this, but we do encounter this word in Shakespeare, Milton, and elsewhere in other classical texts. At some level, this word is dead because it isn’t used in colloquial speech, but it’s also well preserved in written text. Betimes is still part of the lexicon because it’s a word we encounter in part of our passive vocabulary.

Which words would you like to see led to pasture or resurrected from the grave

Dictionaries often indicate this status with the label “archaic”; it’s difficult to decide when an archaic word should be declared dead if it ever should be. Part of making that decision is whether the archaic word appears in a text that’s otherwise fairly comprehensible to modern speakers and still commonly read. We tend to call words in Shakespeare like betimesalack, or hugger-mugger “archaic”; after all, Shakespeare is still read and performances are still done in the original language. 

But words that appear in a poem like Beowulf that are no longer in use are called dead, rather than archaic. After all, few people still read Beowulf in the original. The language of Beowulf is so unfamiliar now that it’s hard to even recognize the words that have survived. The ones that haven’t are considered dead.

Common Questions About Dead Words

Q: How many obsolete words are in the English language?

It is difficult to precisely determine how many obsolete words are in the English language since the language is in a constant state of flux. We do not have records of every word ever used, but the 1989 version of the Oxford English Dictionary lists 47,156 obsolete words.

Q: What is the difference between archaic and obsolete words?

Archaic words are words that are not used very often but appear in scholarly or classic texts and were commonly used until around 1900. Obsolete words, on the other hand, stopped being used after the mid-1700s and would likely not be understood even by a highly educated person.

Q: Do words get removed from the dictionary?

Words are removed from the dictionary when they fall out of use and thus are no longer considered relevant.

Q: What are obsolete words in the English language?

Examples of obsolete words in the English language are beef-witted (unintelligent), boreism (being boring), and cockalorum (a conceited person).

This article was updated on October 3, 2019

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