Saturday, October 01, 2005

Losing Words

You may remember that a few posts back, in a discussion about art fraud and the definition of art, I pondered the idea that we may be losing words from our vocabularly as quickly as we're adding new ones, or possibly even more quickly. My observation was that even though new words are constantly being created and the language is growing, most dictionaries tend to stay about the same size, suggesting that as new words are added to the language, old words are dropped.

If you've ever thought about this, you may be interested in the information presented below, taken from a paper that appeared in the Spring, 1991 issue of the Journal of Diachronic Linguistics (vol. XXI, no. 2):

Since measurement began, about 100 years ago, words have been disappearing from the English language at a rate of between 1% and 1.5% every 20 years.

For the overwhelming majority of words, once they disappear from the English language, they soon reappear in some other language. (This may help explain why so many languages contain "foreign" words.)

Among other words, some get temporarily misplaced and are lost for decades. Many others, however, are accidentally thrown out with household garbage and usually end up in county landfills, contributing to our growing waste-disposal problem.

Some words are victims of violent crime, but many more are victims of accidental deaths. In over 60% of the violent crimes, the victims know their assailants. Most of the accidental deaths occur within 5 miles of the home.

Among words suffering accidental death, the most common is death resulting from automobile accidents (both as driver and pedestrian). Also fairly common is death from accidental electrocution. The least common is death resulting from boating accidents.

The most common forms of violent crime are stabbing, strangulation, and defenestration (being thrown out of a window). Shooting is involved in relatively few cases.

The least frequent (but still statistically significant) causes of word disappearance are suicide, complications resulting from surgery, and change of identity due to participation in the Federal Witness Relocation Program.

[This information is from the article, "Bygone Words: The Destiny of Obsolescence," published by E. A. Howard, Ph. D., and R. Donoghue, Ph. D., both of Cornell University. The Journal of Diachronic Linguistics is an academic journal, published quarterly by the Historical Linguistics Association. You probably can't subscribe unless you're a linguistics professor, but you should be able to find copies in most university libraries.]