The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is generally regarded as the single most comprehensive record of the English language to exist. Included in this work are many thousands of words considered completely “obsolete” by lexicographers. You see, in something of a Hotel California of linguistics, once a word has made it into the OED, it can never leave. Whether other dictionaries remove words or not varies from dictionary to dictionary, but major dictionaries who attempt to put out “complete” editions tend to follow suit in never removing words once they make it in. However, the much more common concise editions of all dictionaries do occasionally remove not just obsolete words, but sometimes quite common ones that simply don’t fit and are deemed less important to include than other words for various reasons.
Before we get to how a word becomes obsolete in the eyes of dictionary creators, it’s helpful to understand how a word enters the dictionary in the first place and what it means for a word to be there, with the latter being something of a common misconception.
While it’s very common for people to say something like, “It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not a word”, this sentiment is rarely if ever, shared by professional word-nerds. One does not have to look hard to find editors at all of the major dictionaries specifically denouncing this popular notion. As co-founder of the phenomenal word reference site Wordnik and one-time chief editor of American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, including editing the second edition of The New Oxford American Dictionary, Erin McKean, notes,
All words (aside from unintentional errors and malapropisms) are words at their birth. All you have to decide is whether the word in question is the right one for the job. Dictionaries don’t measure realness; they serve as rough proxies for the extent of a word’s use.
Or as noted in the FAQ section of Merriam-Webster’s website,
Most general English dictionaries are designed to include only those words that meet certain criteria of usage across wide areas and over extended periods of time. As a result, they may omit words that are still in the process of becoming established, those that are too highly specialized, or those that are so informal that they are rarely documented in professionally edited writing. The words left out are as real as those that gain entry; the former simply haven’t met the criteria for dictionary entry – at least not yet (newer ones may ultimately gain admission to the dictionary’s pages if they gain sufficient use).
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