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Where words go when they die

Snowy Hills

The current online version of the Macquarie Dictionary lists 138,000 words and 210,000 different definitions. According to an online survey of 2 million (admittedly self-selected) people, the average adult has a vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 words. Which begs the question, what happens with the rest?

Some words are part of industry jargon or have a technical application; therefore, only a small group of people would know and use them. Other words have simply become obsolete, or evolved into new terms, so the original form or meaning are archaic (think ‘portmanteau’ for suitcase or ‘omnibus’ for bus).

As I have written before, the English language is remarkably adaptable, constantly picking up new words from difference sources and discarding those it no longer needs. Rapid technological development and unprecedented degree of connection between English speakers around the world (particularly through the rise of social media platforms) suggest that this process is happening faster than ever before.

The Economist magazine’s linguistic column ‘Johnson’ considered this development, noting that some terms have a built-in expiry date as technology advances to the point where the original concept becomes obsolete: think of ‘instant messaging’ for early, standalone chat services. Other words are no longer needed, not because the underlying concept is no longer relevant, but because the terms are so all-pervasive that they have lost relevance. Consider ‘metrosexual’, which Johnson describes as ‘useful for about five minutes in 2003 or thereabouts’:

‘Metrosexual’ faded not mainly because it went out of date, but rather the opposite, because of the success of the underlying concept; even though men started wearing beards and lumberjack shirts, they did so with exquisite care. In other words, every man is a metrosexual now, expected to spend time on his grooming.

The same column suggests we hit peak-hipster (in terms of Google searches) around 2015.

Language can be like that, chewing up words and spitting them out again while leaving fascinating cultural markers along the way. Simon and Garfunkel’s hit single ‘Bridge over troubled water’ has aged better than its B side ‘We’ve got a groovey thing goin’, but there is no mistaking the era in which this song was written. John Hughes clearly had a lot of fun sending up 80s teen slang in his cult classic Ferris Bueller’s day off, culminating in the school secretary noting that fellow students considered Ferris to be ‘a righteous dude’. Just like architecture, fashion or food, some words and phrases evoke and even come to represent a specific time and place in history.

photo credit: Dell’s Pics Snowy Hills via photopin (license)

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