Abstersion of recrement

09Oct08

Because I’ve been nattering on about words lately, I note with some interest the news (passed along via The Schroederist) that English will soon acquire its millionth word. This is interesting in the light of some other recent news that the lexicographers at Collins have, no doubt in order to make way for valuable neologisms like teh, woot, and pwn, decided on a list of obscure words to remove from their next edition — unless word fans vote American Idol-style to save them from extinction.

The list of endangered words can be read here. Arguably, it would be no big loss if many of them were extirpated from the English language. Sesquipedalian Latinate monstrosities that say in several syllables what shorter, plainer words say more concisely may deserve their floccinaucinihilipilification. (That is, these long, ugly, Latin-derived words may deserve to be deemed worthless.)

If the word itself is longer than the supplied synonym or definition, it’s probably not that useful. We don’t really need caliginosity, for instance, when we have dimness and darkness. On the other hand, if the word is much more succinct than the definition, there’s a good argument for keeping it. There’s olid, for example, which means “foul-smelling” (although fetid is only one letter longer).

But of course, there’s really no cause for alarm. These words aren’t being removed from the English language — only from the Collins English Dictionary. Our language only gets richer as our vocabulary gets larger, and if you want to keep on using them — on the slight chance you were — you’re perfectly free to go ahead, and you’re free to buy a larger and more complete dictionary than Collins. (Or you can just look them up in the unabridged online version of Collins, which doesn’t have the space constraints imposed by print publishing and isn’t deleting anything. But the people at Collins wouldn’t mind if you bought a copy of their print edition, since this whole story is really just a clever publicity stunt meant to drum up interest in the new edition.)

I can think of at least one or two words that few dictionaries outside the Oxford English Dictionary would list, yet are worth retaining because they mark a precision of meaning worth observing. For instance, it’s inaccurate to use the words collide and collision to refer to a moving object striking a stationary one, as they properly refer only to two or more moving objects making forcible contact — hence the co– prefix. For a moving object striking a stationary one, we have allide and allision

Granted, those two are used almost exclusively in maritime law. Most of the time, you can get away with just saying crash. But on the rare occasion you need them or other obscure words — or even if you just want to have a little fun by taking them out for a spin and showing off — they’re good to keep around.



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