Don Marquis wrote of Prohibition that it “makes you want to cry into your beer and denies you the beer to cry into.”
That’s the way I frequently feel about the closing of our vocabularies. It isn’t so much that words are being hounded from the lexicon, dragged out of their comfortable homes on the page with lovely views of “paradigm” and “parquet” and flung screaming into the void. It isn’t exactly like that.
Mobs do not form outside the dictionary, chanting, “‘Moist’ is a terrible word and it has haunted these premises long enough!” and lighting small sections of the alphabet on fire.
What is happening is more insidious than that. The way we encounter words is changing: less and less often on a printed page, more and more within the confines of an illuminated screen, where images take primacy. We read a volume of words daily that is supposed to be roughly equivalent to “On the Road” in its entirety, but we absorb them differently. The kind of contact with words that makes you learn a word — by, say, reading fiction, which is supposed to help form vocabulary — happens more and more sporadically.
And the trouble with losing your vocabulary, as Orwell anticipated, is that you lose the words to express your unhappiness about losing your vocabulary.
I created the charts below using Google’s Ngram tool. Look at all the words that are going the way of the dodo! Look, and lucubrate! I don’t care if it sounds a little questionable. Lucubrate!
(“Lucubrate” actually is nowhere near as naughty as “ecdysiast,” which is also on the way out.)
It’s odd that both “probity” and “ecdysiasts” have plummeted so far at the same time, but there you have it.
“Meretricious” is also way down, which is a shame — there was a time when not only was “meretricious” commonly in use, but also the joke “Meretricious!” “And a happy new year!” was something people laughed at.
What’s the matter with these words? Are they too abstruse and recondite?
Are “abstruse” and “recondite” too abstruse and recondite?
Without the words, it’s so much harder to be voluble.
(not faring quite as badly).
And we’re even losing the words to exclaim about what is happening to our vocabularies! Our expressions of anger have been winnowed down as well.
We are WAY down from peak “alas.”
“Durn” peaked in 1934.
“Zounds” is not what it was.
Poor “fie” fell off the charts and stayed off.
But “dagnabbit” is breaking the mold a little.
And “egad” might be experiencing a slight resurgence:
As is “Great Scott!”
We only recently hit peak “Egads!”
So what do we do? Where does this leave us?
There’s hope, after all. Outdated things can come back. Words, unlike species, can be resuscitated any time you’d like, with much less trouble than we annually put into encouraging pandas to keep reproducing. Words are less recalcitrant. You can, if you really put your mind to it, make fetch happen. Or even “fie!” We just have to put our heads together.
One company estimates that a new word is added to the English language every 98 minutes. All you need is a critical mass of people who start to accept it.
That’s what happened to “defenestration.” “Did you know that we ALREADY HAVE a word for throwing something out a window?” people evangelized, and the word took right off. Remember where you were when you heard the good news? We can replicate this.
The only trouble is that these are the words we remember that we’re forgetting. The ones we don’t remember we’re forgetting are the ones that are really in trouble: “morion” (when was the last time you saw a morion, though?) and “vicambulate” and “tremefy,” to name just three that I found only by wandering into the verbal equivalent of an antique shop or museum. You know, a book.
But who reads those?