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 dictionaries of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. Here they are, with 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 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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