Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Endangered Words

I have decided to form the Society for Endangered Words (assuming that there is no such group in existence) to protect certain rarely used English words from extinction. The idea of endangered words and the need to protect them was mentioned in a recent article by Robert Fulford.

He mentions "eurocommunism" as a dated word that the Oxford English Dictionary excludes from its Concise edition (keeping it for the multi-volume complete edition and the online version of the world's most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary). This raises the question: words may be labeled "obsolete," but they never really die. The OED has dropped "threequal" (third book in a series) since it is rarely used, but you can still find it in the big edition.

Fulford makes a good case for keeping "pusillanimous," which is clearly superior to cowardice. It has overtones reaching "deep into the sources of timidity," he says, with its hints of fear and censorious childrearing. He finds that the New York Times used "pusillanimous" or its noun version ten times in the past two years.

I would argue that we hold onto--hence my new Society--"discombobulate," an American word from the 19th century too colorful and full of bluster to exclude. It's a fanciful variant on "confuse" or "disorient." And I would retain in my list of endangered words "superannuated," which sounds infinitely superior to "too old to work"; it's a better word than "obsolete" or "antiquated" unless you are describing ideas or things and not people.

I might drop a word I never use and always stumble on: "jejune," which can signify an immature person, an insignificant book (I would use "insipid"), or an inadequate diet. I would like to hear other opinions on this one. I would definitely drop "jerry-built" (shoddy) since my own name is Jerry and I always cringe when I encounter this old-fashioned word.

So that is how words die: they are so rarely used that they cease to circulate and the OED lexicographers and other experts move them into storage. In the meantime, we who subscribe to SEW (Society for Endangered Words) will fight to retain most of the colorful ones. So it goes. (Pun intended)

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