Coming in … and going out …

This Oxford Living Dictionaries article and this article from Merriam-Webster both explain how difficult it is to answer the question: how many words are there in the English language?

One reason it is difficult to calculate the number of words in English is that new words come into the language all the time. As we saw in Step 4.3, hundreds of new words are added to dictionaries every year. Most new words are never officially recorded, however, and most are current for only a short while, and then fall out of use.

There are several reasons why words fall out of use. Some are ‘buzzwords’ relating to topical issues; these may not be needed when the issue is no longer discussed. The Macmillan Dictionary BuzzWord archive shows some good examples of these types of words by date of entry, from 2003.

Sometimes people deliberately avoid certain words, in order to identify themselves with other members of their own group; teenagers, for example, reject slang words used by the older generation and replace them with new words (or new meanings for old words). Some new words are creative, one-off ‘exploitations’, invented to grab the readers’ or listeners’ attention for just a moment (see Step 4.8). And sometimes more than one new word is created to refer to the same thing, and only the most popular one survives.

When new words come into the language it is often hard for dictionary makers to predict whether they will catch on. Algeo (1993) gives examples of new words that appeared in dictionaries last century, but which fell out of use and were not listed in later editions. These include:

  • Uniscan – a proposed economic union between the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries

  • chucks – something humorous.

  • beat-knit – a loose sweater.

  • astragator – we now say ‘astronaut’ or ‘cosmonaut’.

  • algeny – we now say ‘genetic engineering’.

  • intoximeter – we now say ‘breathalyser’.

  • skygirl – an airplane stewardess (we now tend to use a more gender-neutral expression, such as ‘cabin crew member’).

Some of the invented words and expressions which had fallen out of use by the 1980s are now popular again – for example ‘beach bunny’ (a young woman who spends a lot of time on the beach), and ‘vegeburger’ (now usually ‘veggie burger’, a kind of hamburger made with vegetables instead of meat).

Another example of a word that became popular, died, and was reborn again is ‘pukka’ (meaning ‘genuine’ or ‘excellent’), which comes from the Hindi and Urdu word ‘pakkā’. ‘Pukka’ was popular with British people in the time of the Raj, and became popular again in informal London English in the 1990s (perhaps because it was used by Jamie Oliver, a British celebrity chef).

The Oxford Dictionary discusses the case of ‘bigly’, a word which had been used in English since around 1400. ‘Bigly’ was described as ‘now rare’ by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2008, but became a buzzword in 2015, when it started to be used in contexts associated with Donald Trump.

It’s fun to read about new words and expressions, but we must be careful about using them. They may only appear in certain limited contexts, and they may not be popular for very long. If language learners use them, people might think they are making mistakes, rather than displaying their extensive knowledge of English vocabulary.

Sometimes new words are placed within quote marks in published texts to indicate that they are not in widespread use. Readers will not necessarily know them, so writers might include an explanation of their meaning the first time they appear in the text.

Your task

Can you think of any other words that were popular quite recently, but now seem to have gone out of use?

Share your response with your chosen words in the comments area and discuss whether they still use them.

References

Algeo, J. (1993) ‘Desuetude Among New English Words’. International Journal of Lexicography, 6 (4), 281-293

Further reading

This draft version of an article by Antoinette Renouf explains more about the lifecycles of words:

Renouf, A. (2013) ‘A Finer Definition of Neology in English: The Life-Cycle of a Word’. in Hasselgård, H., Ebeling J., and Oksefjell Ebeling, S. (eds) Corpus Perspectives on Patterns of Lexis, Studies in Corpus Linguistics 57, 177-208 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8969/ac8528cf9c38a0cbee58a18fbfe49c1b5109.pdf?

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University