The paradox of ‘extinct’ words

Fresh on the heels of the addition of the neologisms ‘woot’ and ‘sexting’ to this year’s edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, comes news of the editors of the Collins Dictionary declaring a whole host of words obsolete and removing them from their smaller volumes.

 OK, so there’s a bit of churnalism going on here. Lazy journalists get an easy story, and publishing companies get some free publicity for the latest edition of their dictionaries. But still, it’s an interesting, and slightly paradoxical phenomenon.

Think about it.

The experts at Collins track the appearance of words in their database. When the appearance of certain words in textual and oral sources, including newspapers, falls below a certain threshold, they are delared ‘extinct’. However, given that declaring these words extinct provokes a flurry of news articles explaining that a ‘wittol’ is ‘a man who tolerates his wife’s unfaithfulness,’ and that ‘to supererogate’ means ‘to do or perform more than what is required,’ won’t that cause an unholy spike in their presence in the database, meaning that the very same words will need to be reintroduced into the dictionary the following year? Or do the boffins at Collins make some special exception for news articles generated by their own activity? Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

Philosophical questions aside, isn’t removing little-used words from a dictionary counter-intuative at the most practical level? What do we use dictionaries for? To look up words like ‘table’ or ‘chair’? No! To look up those odd, little-used words that we don’t understand.

Apparently extinct words will be kept in the complete Collins dictionaries because they are of interest to historians, but surely historians aren’t the only people who read texts that were written more than a year ago. I’m currently reading Middlemarch, which was published in 1874, and I can assure you the characters don’t speak like me or anyone I know. It’d be nice to think that the dictionary would be able to help me out if I come across a male character described as a ‘wittol’, but it seems not.

The longer ago whatever you are reading was written, the more likely it is you’ll need a dictionary to understand it, but, given the cavalier attitudes of modern dictionary publishers, the less likely you’ll be to actually find any word you don’t understand when you look it up.

I despair!