Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Words on the chopping block

At the end of February, researchers at The University of Reading claimed to have identified – with a little help from computer technology – the oldest words in English. Among these were the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘who’, and the numerals ‘two’ and ‘three’. More controversially, the researchers proposed words that could disappear relatively quickly, including verbs such as ‘turn’ and ‘wipe’.

As editor of The Chambers Dictionary, I was invited last week to take part in a discussion about the research on The Book Café on BBC Radio Scotland The overriding view among the guests was one of scepticism: surely language evolution is not so predictable that human or machine can say with any certainty which words will have the shortest life?

The extinction of words was a topic I had been pondering just before the research was published, having been prompted by a correspondent’s question about how we assign the label ‘obsolete’ to words in the dictionary. The answer is that we have no hard-and-fast rules, except that the label should be applied to words that we are certain have fallen out of use, usually because they refer to obsolete concepts. But then, it is very difficult to determine when a word is truly obsolete, and our awareness of it means there is always the potential to use it again. If I mention a word that has disappeared from the dictionary since 1901 – let’s say ‘wappet’ (a yelping dog) – can I claim to have resurrected the word by using it in this blog?

It was put to me by a producer on the programme that I must witness the death of words frequently, when we delete them from the dictionary and replace them with others. In truth, Chambers editors are not guilty of deleting very much. The editors of the 1972 edition of The Chambers Dictionary attempted to delete just one word – agene, a flour whitening agent. Not, you might imagine, a word of such inherent character and interest that it was bound to elicit love and loyalty. However, several correspondents remarked on its loss and the word was restored to the dictionary, where it resides contentedly to this day.

A report on the BBC news site on the Reading research described certain words as ‘heading for the lexicographer’s chopping block’. Because they can decide what is included in dictionaries, lexicographers are often perceived as having the final say in whether a word is dead or alive: they are the judge, jury and executioner in a word’s trial. However, lexicographers are well placed to appreciate how difficult it is, when language can be fluid and unpredictable, to say with confidence when a word is no longer in use. They also know how loath word lovers can be to think that any word could ever vanish completely.

Mary O'Neill

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