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The Word Nerd: The death of some words and the half-lives of others

According to biologists, most species that have ever existed are extinct. Likewise, words are organic; they are born, have lives and often disappear, albeit not at the catastrophic level of species. They don’t actually die, but many become obsolete and the OED records tens of thousands of these words with the notation “obs.” or “obsolete.”

One calculation shows that of the 231,000 entries in the OED, at least 20% are obsolete. These defunct words range from aa, a stream or watercourse, macilent, lacking in substance, and end in zymome, a name for a constituent of gluten that is insoluble in water.

English has a large vocabulary by dint of its history which might explain this fallout. England was conquered by the Vikings in the 8th century and then Norman French in the 11th century and prudently concluded many centuries later  that it was better to be a hammer than a nail by proceeding to invade  peoples in Asia, Africa and North America. In the process English added multitudinous words to its lexicon, but truth be told, not every added word need remain in our vocabulary. An example is respair used both as a noun and a verb referring to fresh hope after a period of despair. It was listed but once in the 15th century then quickly forgotten. Also, numerous words were fashioned by scholarly writers in the 14th century that employed Greek or Latin roots. Many of these new coinages (dubbed inkhorns because ink originally was stored in horns) were unknown or uncommon in ordinary speech. An example here is illecebrous that meant “alluring” and it had a lexicographic shelf life of only 100 years. Another reason words disappear is because they get superseded by synonyms. For example, the words roetgenogram, radiogram and x-ray were all born towards the end of the 19th century but only x-ray is used today.

A word, however, can avoid the ignominy of obsolescence and enjoy at least a half-life by burrowing its way into an idiomatic expression.For example, have you ever espied a caboodle sans a kit? According to the OED it was last recorded “kitless” in 1923. Caboodle appears to be a corruption of boodle, which developed in the 1830s in America and was used to mean “a lot” or “a crowd,” but by the end of the 19th century this usage was all but extinct. Similarly kith only exists nowadays in the expression “kith and kin.” In Old English, however, it referred to knowledge, acquaintance or your native land in which you had enjoyed great familiarity. Another of these vestigial words is fettle. Nowadays, it is almost always found in the expression “in fine fettle” which designates a very good condition. Fettle was born as a Lancashire dialect word in the 18th century meaning dress, case or condition and originally there were varieties of fettles such as “poor,” “good” or “frustrated.” However, by the beginning of the 20th century the word seems only to exist when wedded with the adjective “fine.”

Another little word in this category is dint. In Old English, the word referred to a blow struck with a weapon and came to represent subduing something by force, Nowadays the word is only used in the expression “by dint of” and can represent any quality that allows you to accomplish a task.

There are also several words found in idioms that while familiar, their meanings in expressions don’t correspond with the sense one usually associates with the word.

For example, if you’re a gentle soul, you might never again be able to “cut someone to the quick” once you’re aware that quick designates that tender flesh below the growing part of a toenail or fingernail.  Also, the word boot as in “to boot” has been loitering since the year 1000 with the sense of “good,” “advantage” or “profit,” but it had died out in these senses by the 19th century, although it enjoys a half-life in its contemporary idiomatic form.  Similarly, the word hue as in “hue and cry” doesn’t refer to a shade, but derives from the Old French hu meaning clamour and is most likely onomatopoeic like the word “hoot.”

So let us hope that English retains these idiomatic usages. Better a half-life than no life at all.

Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in 2016.

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