Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Collins, Don't Exuviate That Word!

It's a dirty little secret of lexicography that for every new word or meaning that gets added to a revised edition of a dictionary, something usually has to come out. Only the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary has the luxury of never doing away with old entries. Smaller dictionaries are expected to introduce new words with every edition, but they're usually mum about what is removed to keep the published work to a reasonable size. Collins English Dictionary, on the other hand, is taking a novel approach by announcing old words that are on the chopping block, in order to see which words the public thinks should earn a stay of execution.

As reported in the London Times, Collins released a list of 24 words that are slated to be removed from the forthcoming edition of their largest dictionary. If there's enough of a public outcry before February, then certain words will be spared. It's a clever marketing tactic, since it appeals to public anxieties about the loss of vocabulary from the language, as if the words are endangered species facing extinction in a modern world that has no place for them.

It's worth noting that when a dictionary cuts words or senses, it's not always the most archaic words that get the axe. For instance, when the second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary was published in 2005, one of the entries that came out (to make room for such newcomers as Google and weblog) was information superhighway, a techie catchphrase of the mid-'90s. As NOAD editor Erin McKean explained at the time, "People aren't using it as much, and if they are, they're using it in a jokey way." (Sorry, Al Gore!)

But none of the words announced by Collins are that recent: most have the whiff of quaint museum pieces. Seven of the words are not so rare, actually, since they can be found in the Visual Thesaurus. Here they are, with VT's definitions:

  • agrestic: characteristic of the fields or country; rustic and uncouth
  • apodeictic: necessarily true or logically certain
  • embrangle: make more complicated or confused through entanglements
  • exuviate: cast off (hair, skin, horn, or feathers)
  • muliebrity: the state of being an adult woman
  • nitid: bright with a steady but subdued shining
  • vaticinate: foretell through or as if through the power of prophecy

The rest of the words are a bit more obscure:

  • abstergent: cleansing or scouring
  • caducity: perishableness; senility
  • caliginosity: dimness; darkness
  • compossible: possible in coexistence with something else
  • fatidical: prophetic
  • fubsy: short and stout; squat
  • griseous: streaked or mixed with grey; somewhat grey
  • malison: a curse
  • mansuetude: gentleness or mildness
  • niddering: cowardly
  • olid: foul-smelling
  • oppugnant: combative, antagonistic or contrary
  • periapt: a charm or amulet
  • recrement: waste matter; refuse; dross
  • roborant: tending to fortify or increase strength
  • skirr: a whirring or grating sound, as of the wings of birds in flight
  • vilipend: to treat or regard with contempt

Some of these words already have celebrity spokespeople who will try to popularize them before Collins makes its final decision. For instance, comedian and quiz show host Stephen Fry has championed fubsy; British poet laureate Andrew Motion plans to work skirr into his poetry; and Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable will try to use niddering in his public speeches. Meanwhile, readers of the Times are voting for their own favorites, with embrangle currently in the lead.

Which words do you think should get an official reprieve from Collins? Even if your own personal favorite isn't spared, don't worry — it'll still be in the OED!


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 7th 2008, 2:44 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
To lose embrangle, fubsy, griseous, malison, mansuetude, and niddering would be a crime. I think of me as a child, having pulled one of my parents books off the shelf to read, and using our dictionary when puzzled by the words in say, for example, Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, not once did I go away definitionless. We were reference book people---worshippers at the shrine of, actually---but we did not have the luxury of the OED at home. (I have the enormous luxury now of the OED online on the Virtual PC portion of my Mac.) I would like to think kids can still find obscure words in the nearest dictionary, even if that dictionary has to grow stouter to provide this to them, or maybe appear online, searchable, and paperless so binding widths no longer limit anything.
Tuesday October 7th 2008, 3:41 PM
Comment by: Mary Beth J. (San mateo, CA)
The trouble with dictionaries is they must contain so many words that nearly everyone knows! I have come across mansuetude, periapt and niddering in recent reading, possibly Dickins; I am certain I looked up periapt. I own the tiny print version of the OED, which is more unwieldy than a Collins but appropriate in my little house. Will readers who discover the pleasure of reading older books be forced to use a purchased or subscription on-line dictionary?
Wednesday October 8th 2008, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I have to say that I do believe there will be a time in my life when I will need to use the word vilipend. Just because it's not being used today doesn't mean we don't have plans...

Embrangle is just too good of a word to let go. I don't care if I never, ever use it. I want to know that I can. And if they kick it out, then I'm going to just start using intertwingle. A threat... or a promise? You decide.
Thursday October 9th 2008, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I pleaded with a group of on line friends to help save at least a few of these words. I thought if we could adopt one or two, it would be a positive contribution.

Here is the reply of one bright light!

I vaticinate that things will become more embrangled should Collins choose to exuviate this recrement of words. It is apodeictic that this abstergent of the dictionary will not make it roberant or fubsy, but will make our language far more agrestic. Their niddering attempt to make their publication stand out with an nitid light is a malison, an olid, oppugnant movement against the very fabric of our linguistics. I find, in my muliebrity, that the coming caliginosity of fewer words with which to enhance my verbal expression will bring us closer to caducity than any other fatidical study. Retaining these words in our current language set is compossible and it is our sworn and necessary duty to vilipend any attempt to otherwise countermand us. For if we allow these fiends to reduce our vocabulary, surely our hair will become griseous, our manners filled with less mansuetude, our intelligence flying away from us with a skirr! Is there no periapt to save us?


Now... what is the next step?
Sunday April 12th 2009, 10:13 PM
Comment by: Eugene A. (Panama City Beach, FL)
It reminds me of visiting an animal shelter to pick out a dog. Anyone whose done it knows what happens. Just about all the dogs look like the dog you'd like to take home, but you can only take one. That little one back in the corner looks so sad and lonely. The aggresive one would make a great watch dog. And on and on. You love them all and want to save them all. You block it from your mind, but you know they only keep the dogs for so long.
Finally you make your decision and take your perfect pet home, and it takes a couple days to forget those other dogs, but they are forgotten. There's nothing you can do but hope that others love dogs as much as you do.
Monday October 11th 2010, 3:53 AM
Comment by: DIANA W. (TUCSON, AZ)
any word that sounds like mule and is associated with woman.... well, please exuviate the vilipendous word from your list. we have enough to deal with.

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