By Karl Smallwood
Karl Smallwood is an author at Today I Found Out.
The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is generally regarded as the single most comprehensive record of the English language to exist. Included in this work are many thousands of words considered completely “obsolete” by lexicographers. You see, in something of a Hotel California of linguistics, once a word has made it into the OED, it can never leave. Whether other dictionaries remove words or not varies from dictionary to dictionary, but major dictionaries who attempt to put out “complete” editions tend to follow suit in never removing words once they make it in. However, the much more common concise editions of all dictionaries do occasionally remove not just obsolete words, but sometimes quite common ones that simply don’t fit and are deemed less important to include than other words for various reasons.
Before we get to how a word becomes obsolete in the eyes of dictionary creators, it’s helpful to understand how a word enters the dictionary in the first place and what it means for a word to be there, with the latter being something of a common misconception.
While it’s very common for people to say something like, “It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not a word”, this sentiment is rarely if ever, shared by professional word-nerds. One does not have to look hard to find editors at all of the major dictionaries specifically denouncing this popular notion. As co-founder of the phenomenal word reference site Wordnik and one-time chief editor of American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, including editing the second edition of The New Oxford American Dictionary, Erin McKean, notes,
All words (aside from unintentional errors and malapropisms) are words at their birth. All you have to decide is whether the word in question is the right one for the job. Dictionaries don’t measure realness; they serve as rough proxies for the extent of a word’s use.
Or as noted in the FAQ section of Merriam-Webster’s website,
Most general English dictionaries are designed to include only those words that meet certain criteria of usage across wide areas and over extended periods of time. As a result, they may omit words that are still in the process of becoming established, those that are too highly specialized, or those that are so informal that they are rarely documented in professionally edited writing. The words left out are as real as those that gain entry; the former simply haven’t met the criteria for dictionary entry – at least not yet (newer ones may ultimately gain admission to the dictionary’s pages if they gain sufficient use).
Going further, in a rather enjoyable diatribe on this general topic, professor of linguistics at Stanford, Arnold Zwicky, states,
We start with the admonition that people of taste and refinement should not use X. This is then exaggerated, elevated to the admonition that people, in general, should not use X; what should govern the behavior of the “best” of us (those are genuine sneer quotes) in certain circumstances should govern the behavior of all of us, all of the time, in all contexts, for all purposes. (What a remarkable lack of nuance! What a divorcement from the complex textures of social life!)
As if that weren’t enough, it ratchets up, hysterically, one more notch, to the bald assertion that X simply isn’t available for use; it’s just not part of the social repertoire. My dear, it just isn’t done.
But if it truly isn’t done, then there’s no need for the admonitions.
Don’t tell me there’s “no such word”. Parade your idiosyncratic prejudices, if you wish, and if your mind is open enough we might be able to talk about the bases of your prejudices (and mine). But don’t lie to me about the state of the language.
Backing up this slightly philosophical point of view with real world usage is a 2011 paper published in Science, “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books”, which analyzes the language used in 5,195,769 books (about 4% of all books ever published). Among other things, they found that when comparing words used in those books to the OED and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, even when excluding proper nouns (which those dictionaries don’t include), “a large fraction of the words in our lexicon (63%) were in this lowest frequency bin. As a result, we estimated that 52% of the English lexicon – the majority of the words used in English books – consists of lexical ‘dark matter’ undocumented in standard references.”
On a similar note, with regards to not just what constitutes a word, but proper usage, the OED also distances themselves from carrying that banner, stating quite frankly,
The Oxford English Dictionary is not an arbiter of proper usage, despite its widespread reputation to the contrary. The Dictionary is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, its content should be viewed as an objective reflection of English language usage, not a subjective collection of usage ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.
In the end, language is an ever-evolving beast and really any combination of letters can count as a word if said combination has or is given some meaning; and grammatical conventions exist to serve language, not the other way around.
For reference here, the venerable OED *only* contains about 600,000 entries, with most lexicographers estimating there are probably actually about twice that many words in the English language. (There is much debate on this, however, owing to what actually counts as a distinct word. For instance, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 12 distinct words spelled “post”. On top of this, there are numerous regional slang terms largely unknown to the general speaker of English that would never be included in most dictionaries. On that note, Wordnik, which seeks to document every word ever appearing in the English language, regardless of dialect or how obscure the word is, currently has almost seven million unique entries!)
Alright, so now we’ve laid to rest the popular notion that dictionaries are the bastions of what counts as a word or not. If even the OED isn’t including every word, then what is required for a word to make it into their distinguished record of the English language?
In two words- sustained usage.
Or to quote the OED on their general method:
The OED requires several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time. The exact time-span and number of examples may vary: for instance, one word may be included on the evidence of only a few examples, spread out over a long period of time, while another may gather momentum very quickly, resulting in a wide range of evidence in a shorter space of time. We also look for the word to reach a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood: that is, we look for examples of uses of a word that are not immediately followed by an explanation of its meaning for the benefit of the reader. We have a large range of words under constant review, and as items are assessed for inclusion in the dictionary, words which have not yet accumulated enough evidence are kept on file, so that we can refer back to them if further evidence comes to light.
Evidence of a potential new word’s use is provided mostly by volunteers who pore over everything from magazines to obscure scientific journals as part of something dubbed the “Reading Programme”, which “recruits voluntary and paid readers, and these readers provide the OED editors with quotations which illustrate how words are used.”
These quotations are all meticulously cataloged and if they happen to contain a new word or “new sense of an existing word” editors aren’t familiar with it can easily be cross-referenced with other quotations to see if it needs to be added to the dictionary or perhaps investigated further.
As it is the mission of the OED to provide “a permanent record of [a word’s] place in the language”, once a word is deemed worthy to be added to the dictionary, as previously noted, it will never be removed, regardless of whether or not it later falls out of use.
The reasoning behind this is twofold- first, to ensure the OED remains as close to a definitive record of the English language as practically possible; second, to ensure a reader can be reasonably confident that a large percentage of the time, any word they do not know the definition or meaning of will be found in the OED. To quote the OED website: “The idea is that a puzzled reader encountering an unfamiliar word in, say, a 1920s novel, will be able to find the word in the OED even if it has been little used for the past fifty years.”
Though admirable, a side-effect of this dedication to broadly documenting the English language is that editors struggle mightily to keep up with the rate at which language evolves. For example, the complete Third Edition of the OED, the hotly anticipated follow-up to the Second Edition, isn’t set to be completed until around the late 2030s and at an estimated production cost of around £34 million (about $45 million).
As an idea of how painstakingly slowly this process is, in 2010 the Third Edition was estimated to be 28% complete. At the time, around 80 lexicographers, then led by John Simpson, had been working on it for 21 years…
In fact, Simpson ended up retiring in 2013 after 24 years of working on the OED3, with the chief editor job falling to then 48-year-old Michael Proffitt. Given the estimates for the completion of the Third Edition, Proffitt will be around 70 years old, and perhaps himself retired, by the time it’s finished.
So yeah, Game of Thrones fans, if you think you Throners have had it bad waiting for the next book in the series to be finished, spare a thought for us OEDers. (Though, at least in our case, we get regularly published updates on the work as small sections are completed.)
Now, although it is the policy of the OED to never remove a word from the dictionary, they do release abridged versions containing what they feel reflects “the living English language” at the time, or in some editions a set of words curated to be suitable for a given audience.
Towards this end, the OED, and other dictionaries, regularly remove what they feel are “obsolete” words from newer editions of abridged versions. This has historically been done for the sake of cost and size practicality, though the digital age is rapidly making this less of a concern.
To illustrate how much of a problem this historically has been, however, consider the Second Edition of the OED, which consists of a collection of a whopping 20 volumes and roughly 22,000 pages; that’s a lot of paper, binding, and shipping. The end cost to the consumer for that complete set is in turn about $1100. (And it should be noted that, according to Chief Executive of Oxford University Press, Nigel Portwood, the OED has never made a profit, even with such prices, not to mention the $295 annual fee if one wants access to the online digital edition.)
Obviously, the market for such a massive physical product is very niche, and most word-nerds these days who do have a use for the product use the digital version anyway, including ourselves, as it’s a vastly superior research tool. (This is, in part, why the completed much longer Third Edition will likely never be printed.) But concise print editions are still somewhat commonly used, at least for now, so it makes sense to trim some of the extraneous content and release an abridged version that doesn’t cost as much as a flight to Hawaii or take up an entire bookshelf.
So how is it decided which words won’t make the cut in these concise editions? Well this process varies from publisher to publisher, although the typical method seems to be simply going through the previous edition with a fine-toothed comb to look for words that are no longer terribly common in a given sphere- hopefully finding more words that are acceptable to cut than new words that need added, though this seems rarely to be the case.
For example, Angus Stevenson, the head of dictionary projects at the Oxford University Press was tasked with cutting 200 words from the 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary to make way for around 400 newer words in 2011. To accomplish this, he had to rejigger the font and formatting in the dictionary to avoid having to cut too many words still in relatively popular use.
Editors at Collins dictionary had to do more or less the same thing when they excised some 2000 words from their 2008 edition to make way for newer words more familiar to modern English speakers. The senior editor of the dictionary, Cormac McKeown, would later explain that to accomplish this, “We’ve been fiddling around with the typeface to try to get more in, but it is at saturation point. There is a trade-off between getting them in and legibility.”
Unfortunately, this inevitably leads to familiar, but somewhat obsolete, words being removed. For example, in the aforementioned 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, amongst the entries culled were the likes of “cassette player” in favor of things like “mankini” (though “cassette tape” still remained, contrary to what was stated in many dozens of news reports we read concerning this).
This process can become highly controversial, such as happened in the case of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, where they decided to cut out about 50 words connected to nature, like “acorn” and “buttercup”, using the freed up space to add words like “chatroom” and “blog”. As the latter new technologies have given rise to everyone having a platform for their outrage (and the media loving a good controversy surrounding a major brand for the clicks it brings), naturally, this resulted in a well-published outcry over the removal of words describing the “outside” world in favor of the “interior, solitary”.
Of course, these words weren’t actually being removed from the English language (nor common usage), merely a Junior Edition of the dictionary which could only include a minuscule 10,000 or so of the over 600,000 entries found in the OED. In the end, the editors simply chose words that best reflect those that kids today most frequently use or encounter.
So to sum up the question posed at the start of this article, if you’re referring to complete editions of certain major dictionaries, like the OED, once a word is added to it, it will never be removed. However, if you’re referring to the more commonly found various abridged dictionaries lying around, words are removed whenever the respective editors decide they are no longer as relevant as other words, even if sometimes those cut words are still relatively commonly used… Bringing us all back to the point that if ever someone picks up such a dictionary and tells you the word you just used “isn’t a word because it’s not in the dictionary”, you have our permission to slap them upside the head* with that very tome of knowledge and then politely tell them that’s not how dictionaries or languages work…
Full disclosure: we may be slightly oversensitive on this topic owing to having published over six million words online read by millions of people from various dialects of English… Certain Grammar Nazis, or as I prefer to refer to this flavour, “Grammar Nazi’s”, as opposed to regular pro word-nerds we have the utmost respect for and are usually extremely helpful and polite- not to mention generally vastly more flexible with language than their Grammar Nazi counterparts- have, naturally, created something of a perpetually open wound for us on this one over the years. For instance, “anyways” is a word, dammit, has been around in English since at least the 13th century, and we have no plans to stop using it- if for no other reason than out of unabashedly petty spite. ;-))
1. Erin McKean is not just a distinguished linguist we have a little bit of a crush on, but also the creator of Mckean’s law- “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error.”
2. In 2008, in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of obsolete words, Collins dictionary invited celebrities and the public to “adopt” an archaic word to prevent it being cut from that year’s edition of the dictionary. Some of the more amusing words put up for adoption include “niddering” meaning “cowardly”, “fusby” meaning “fat, short or squat”, “Vilipend” meaning “to treat or regard with contempt”, “threequel” meaning “the third film, book, event, etc. in a series; a second sequel”, and “wittol” meaning “a man who tolerates his wife’s infidelity”.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius