Dictionaries incorporate new words every year.
Some are pop culture inventions such as jeggings, photobomb and meme. Others, such as emoji and upvote, spring up from technology and social media.
Dictionaries respond by creating definitions for anyone who cares to know what a twitterer is. Thank goodness they do; you can learn what an eggcorn is simply by turning a few pages in your trusty updated dictionary.
Not all newly added words are recent developments. The Oxford English Dictionary June 2015 new words list included autotune, birdhouse, North Korean and shizzle. North Korea was founded in 1948. The initial release of the autotuner audio processor was in 1997.
Before adding a slang term like shizzle, dictionary publishers weigh its current popularity, predicted longevity and other factors. This year alone, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary welcomed about 1,700 new arrivals.
With more and more words coined every year, dictionaries couldn’t possibly add them all to their existing word banks. Can you imagine a dictionary containing all the words ever used in English? It would be impossible to lift. With each new edition, dictionary editors must discard some words to make room for new ones.
Remembrance of words past
What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Is that expression true in the case of vocabulary? Are words out of sight, out of mind?
Let’s look at some words we lost—terms eliminated from dictionaries or never included—to see whether obsolete words really are better forgotten.
For the sake of spelling bees alone, we should consider bringing back quomodocunquize. The word means to make money by any means possible. Also work-related is ergophobia, the morbid fear of going back to work.
Think of the advice you could give if those two words were still in play: Instead of quomodocunquizing every month, try to find stable employment. If you don’t find a job soon, you run the risk of developing ergophobia.
One obsolete word means a person with a handsome face. English has many words to express beauty; why should this word be banned? Well, its components still exist.
There’s snout, which according to Dictionary.com, has five meanings. Notably, the first and most prevalent understanding of snout is the muzzle of an animal. Another definition refers to humans; a snout is “a person’s nose, especially when large or prominent.”
Fair, the other part of the extinct word, used to be associated more with female beauty than “free from bias.” Therefore, calling someone snoutfair was a compliment.
Grand theft snuggle?
Hugger-mugger is another compound word, but the current definitions of its components don’t match its meaning. In modern English, this term would be confusing. In general, hyphens link together two words to express one idea.
For example, a hunter-gatherer is a person who feeds himself by hunting and gathering food. Nowadays, a hugger is someone who embraces others. A mugger is someone who assaults other people, usually with the intention to rob them.
However, to hugger-mugger isn’t to embrace someone while you rob him; it means to act in a sneaky, secretive manner. Using this verb would probably confound your listener, so it’s probably best to use a more understandable synonym.
You might agree that simpler synonyms are the way to go if you consider some obsolete terms from archaic versions of the Bible. “Cheek teeth” are now rendered as “fangs” in modern revisions. Instead of “suffer the little children to come,” the verse in the book of Mark now reads, “let the little children come.”
Idioms help preserve some obsolete words. Not many people could define tisket or tasket, but they know the children’s rhyme by heart: “A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket…” Outside of the expression, “to and fro,” fro is seldom used. It originated from the Scottish pronunciation of “from.” Now, “to and from” sounds strange to most English speakers.
The Sami languages, spoken in Finland, Norway, and Sweden, reportedly include more than 150 words related to snow and ice. In the 1590s, the English language had a word for recently melted snow—snowbroth. Now, English speakers simply call it water or melted snow.
Words that are markedly specific seem more vulnerable to extinction. A 19th-century dictionary included Englishable, a term to describe how appropriate a word is for the English language. However, English is a dynamic language, always accepting and abandoning words. Apparently, Englishable itself wasn’t amply Englishable; it’s now obsolete.
Do you favor any infrequently used words? If so, use them now and often. A word’s best defense against extinction is regular use.
A version of this article first appeared on Grammarly.