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 really complicated the question…

Magnifying glass over dictionary
(Image: Dynamicfoto/Shutterstock)

If you don’t know the word wittol, you’re not alone; but it’s a pretty great word to know, once you know what it means. It refers to a man who’s aware of and condones his wife being unfaithful. In other words, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a contented cuckold.” You may think, “Ok, wittol is an archaic word.” We know it dates back to the 15th century, and now no one uses it anymore. But perhaps wittol is a word that should be declared dead; and, in fact, some major dictionaries recently did the equivalent of declaring it dead: They removed it from their most recent editions; and they removed it in part in order to make room for some new words.

Learn more: Winning Words, Banished Words

One of the new words that needed to get in was ginormous. Ginormous made newspaper headlines in 2007 when Merriam-Webster decided to include ginormous in their new edition. This word feels new enough that we may think, “I was around to witness the birth of that word,” and that may be true depending on how old you are: The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word in 1948. The word, therefore, has over 60 years under its belt but only recently got into major dictionaries.

Birth and death: the endpoints of a word. For some words, birth and death come quite close together. For example, 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, and then it got removed from many major dictionaries near the end of the 21st century. For other words, like the word heart, birth was thousands and 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.

But First…

Let’s start with the question of when a word is born: Some words have been in English as long as there’s been English, words like heart, head, man, sun, and the pronoun I. These were part of Germanic dialects from which English derives and then we could trace them back into proto-Indo-European before it split off into Germanic. Some of these words go so far back that really all we can do is hypothesize about speakers creating these words thousands of years ago.

Other words have been borrowed from other languages into English. With these, we can often pinpoint the first time such a word was written down in an English document. We can say, “OK, that’s the first time we see it in writing,” but we have to assume that the word was used probably in speech earlier than that and then at some point got written down, but maybe not too much earlier; so we can 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 probably was being spoken before 1399. Of course, borrowed words like secret were alive in another language before they came into English, but it’s the moment that we see them in English that’s when we talk about them being somehow “born” in English; but it might be more useful to talk about them as being “adopted” into English, that that’s the moment of “adoption.”

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; and then when other speakers picked up the word multislacking, its life was extended.

Other words are actually born in the language: They appear in English for the first time when English speakers create them. We typically do this with the resources at our disposal, but I have to say we rarely get credit for this particular act of creativity. We could say that words are “born” at the moment when we do something like take a prefix and attach it to another word. When a speaker took the prefix multi– and attached it to slacking, the word multislacking was born; and then when other speakers picked up the word multislacking, its life was extended. Do we know who first created the word multislacking? We don’t; but at some point, that word got born in English. This is, in fact, how most new words are born: We take prefixes and suffixes and we attach them in new ways; we create compounds, we take a verb and make it a noun, take a noun and make it a verb. Of course, as I’ve said, it’s very hard to know exactly who first did this, but we can usually come up with an approximate date as we track its appearance in especially the written language, but to some extent the spoken.

Image of Edward Kasner
Edward Kasner – 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 much more conscious, strategic way and gets credit, as happened with the word googol, meaning “10 to the 100th power.” The story goes like this: Googol was made up in 1938 (or right around there) by a 9-year-old named Milton Sirotta, and he made it up because his uncle, who was a mathematician, Edward Kasner, asked him for a good name for a really big but finite number and little 9-year-old Milton came up with googol. (People say that the Internet company Google’s name may come from this word.)

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

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

“Dead” vs. “Archaic”

When does a word die? The most obvious answer to this question is whenever people stop using it. If no one says the word fremian anymore—and this was 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, highly literate world in which we live with extensive written records has really complicated the question of when a word dies. Let’s consider a word like betimes, which meant “in a short time,” or “in good time”; so you could say, there’s a baby crying and you say, “She will tire betimes.” I would never say this, but we do encounter this word in Shakespeare, Milton, and elsewhere. At some level this word is dead, because we wouldn’t tend to use it in colloquial speech; but it’s also well preserved in written text, so in that way it’s 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”; and it’s a difficult decision about when an archaic word should be declared dead, if it ever should be. I think part of making that decision is whether the archaic word appears in a text that’s otherwise fairly comprehensible to us and that’s still commonly read. We tend to call “archaic” words in Shakespeare like betimes, or alack, or hugger-mugger; after all, we still read Shakespeare and we go to performances that are often performed in the original. But words that appear in the poem Beowulf that we no longer use, we tend to call these dead, rather than archaic. After all, very, very few people still read Beowulf in the original. The language of Beowulf is so unfamiliar now that it’s hard for us even to recognize the words that have survived, and so the ones that haven’t, we think of as dead; and there are quite a lot of them.

Common Questions About Dead Words

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

It is difficult to determine precisely how many obsolete words are in the English language, since the language is in a constant state of flux and 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 get 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 7/14/2019

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