The dictionary isn’t forever. Here’s the lowdown on what happens to a word when its popularity starts to wane.
You can’t call someone a frutescent snollygoster anymore—at least not officially. Those words have been deleted from the dictionary, so you’ll have to come up with alternate terms to describe a shrubby, unscrupulous politician. And those words aren’t alone. Each year, a slew of old-timey words don’t make the cut to the next edition. Here’s how the process of deleting a word from the dictionary works and why it happens in the first place.
Why are words deleted from the dictionary?
The dictionary is a steadily enlarging volume, with thousands of new words being added each year. That’s because the English language constantly evolves and changes. Some new words arise from emerging and expanding disciplines. Others come from pop culture, which gives rise to slang that sometimes goes mainstream. Definitions also change and shift, so common words gain new meanings and nuances. (In fact, these 25 brand-new words were added to the dictionary in 2019.) On the flip side, there are also words that become obsolete. As a result, words get removed from the dictionary, though this doesn’t happen nearly as frequently as they’re added.
How many words are removed from the dictionary each year?
Very few words actually get removed from the dictionary. Instead, they’ll stay in but get categorized in a different way. The unabridged Collins English Dictionary uses labels like “obsolete,” “archaic,” or “old-fashioned” to designate the kind of words that are no longer in circulation. And the Oxford English Dictionary uses labels like “Now hist.” and “Obs.” to indicate that a word is historical or obsolete. There are plenty of bygone words that are no longer in use, but they’ll still show up in various dictionaries. Historians and scholars may need to know the origins and definitions of old, obscure words while doing research, so that’s why some out-of-date words remain. Believe it or not, some dictionaries also have “fake” entries—here’s why.
Who decides which words to delete?
Lexicographers, aka dictionary editors, decide which words make it into the dictionary—and also which ones are ready for deletion. While adding a word to the dictionary is a rigorous process, it’s even more difficult for a word to get deleted. Lexicographers maintain and study vast language databases to keep up-to-date on the words in circulation across various mediums. Most words that are marked for deletion will remain in online dictionaries (or will be removed from one dictionary but remain in others) even after they’re cut from print editions. Sometimes even lexicographers make mistakes. Check out how “dord” and 8 other words (that aren’t actually words) ended up in the dictionary by accident.
Read more: Reader’s Digest