Why words die

Biologists reckon that most species that have ever existed are extinct. That is true of words, too. Of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 231,000 entries, at least a fifth are obsolete. They range from “aa”, a stream or waterway (try that in Scrabble), to “zymome”, “that constituent of gluten which is insoluble in alcohol”.

That is surely an undercounting. The English have an unusually rich lexicon, in part because first they were conquered (by the Vikings and Norman French) and then they took their turn conquering large swathes of the Earth, in Asia, North America and Africa. Thousands of new words entered the standard language as a result. Many more entered local dialects, which were rarely written down. The OED only includes words that have been written.

Dedicated researchers have managed to capture some of the unwritten ones. For the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), researchers conducted thousands of interviews—usually with older country folk—who still spoke their regional dialect. They found such treasures as “to pungle up”, meaning for someone to produce money or something else owed, and “the mulligrubs”: indigestion and, by extension, a foul mood.

Read more: The Economist

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