What These 4 Words Reveal about Our Changing Language

Hundreds of new words have entered the English language in your lifetime, but have you ever thought about the words we’ve lost? Here are four words that illustrate how words disappear from the language.

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You don’t have to be some sort of woke neoliberal technocrat to see how a slew of new words have entered the English language in your lifetime. That already massive unabridged dictionary is only getting larger as we gain new words. But less obvious — and far more interesting — is how we lose words.

Now, to say that we lose words isn’t entirely accurate. The English language doesn’t lose words — not really. Open to any page in an unabridged dictionary, and you’ll find not only words you’ve never heard before, but words you’re likely never to hear in a conversation — absume, hogling, whurl, words that are marked as either archaic or obsolete.

Why do so many useful and colorful words fall into obscurity while others flourish? The following four words illustrate some of the evolutionary forces that work upon our language.

Phlogiston: Science Moves On

In 1669, the German physician and alchemist J.J. Becher formulated what came to be known as the Phlogiston Theory to explain how things burned. The theory stated that all materials contain a substance called “combustible earth” — which later scientists renamed phlogiston — that is released during combustion. Wood, for example, was believed to be made up of ash and phlogiston, and when it burned, the phlogiston was released and the ash left behind.

As odd as this sounds today, it was the prevailing theory for more than a century. Scientists running tests based off this theory of combustion (later also applied to metal corrosion) made a number of advancements in chemistry, ultimately leading to the discovery, in 1774, of what English chemist Joseph Priestley called dephlogisticated air.

Thankfully, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier separately identified the element shortly after, and he gave it the name that stuck: oxygen.

The discovery of oxygen put an end to the Phlogiston Theory, as well as to the vocabulary that went along with it. Outside of historical contexts, we don’t get much call to use the word phlogiston in our daily lives anymore, much less dephlogisticated.

It’s happened before, and it will happen again: Words created to explain various scientific and philosophical theories disappear when the theories themselves are disproven through a better understanding of the world. Unless the vocabulary from these disproven theories finds new life in other disciplines (as, for instance, melancholic and sanguine did), they are liable to disappear from the common tongue, consigned to dwindling use in articles about historical oddities. (Like this one.)

Knocker-upper: Upgrading Your Tech

The crowing rooster waking the farm family at the crack of dawn has been a cliché for centuries. It also happens to be true. But as the industrial revolution took off, people left the farm and packed into cities, and they didn’t bring their roosters with them. Before the invention of the adjustable mechanical alarm clock in 1847, and long before the invention of the wake-up call, people needed some other way to make sure they got up in time for work.

Enter the knocker-uppers (also called knocker-ups).

Clients hired a knocker-upper to come to their home at a certain hour and tap on the bedroom window, usually using a long pole with a knob attached to the top, until they woke up. Affordable alarm clocks and the proliferation of electricity ultimately ended knocker-upping as a viable profession — and took the word knocker-upper with it — though the job did survive well into the 20th century.

Although we readily accept the idea that the forward march of technology renders old equipment obsolete, rarely do we stop to think about the vocabulary that we lose along with it. And that’s a long list of lost words, including some beauts like arquebus (a precursor to the musket); rarebrace, poleyn, and vambrace (parts of a suit of armor); and chatelaine (a sort of tool belt for a head housekeeper).

In a few generations — or perhaps just a few years — historians and logophiles may be explaining the obsolete words beeper, modem, and dot-matrix.

Mulatto: Social Pressures on Language

During the centuries that the enslavement of black Africans was considered an acceptable and profitable enterprise, the white European and American men in power developed their own vocabulary to simplify their ability to write oppression into law. Some localities developed complex hierarchal racial classification systems based on how much one’s “pure” blood was “diluted” by races considered inferior.

And that’s where the word mulatto — a person with one white and one black parent — comes from. And it didn’t stop there. The powers that be established a wide lexicon to label people with a mixed-race background, including the words mestizo, griffe, quadroon, and octaroon, this last used to describe a person with one great-grandparent of color.

Sometimes, social and political pressures act deliberately to remove words from the common tongue. The fact that some of these words have effectively disappeared is proof that language obsolescence isn’t always a bad thing.

Today, we’re seeing the same type of downward pressure on the word niggardly and its even more dysphonic noun form niggard. Originally a neutral word meaning “stingy,” niggardly has, after several high-profile incidents involving lawsuits and resignations, become a dog whistle for racists, providing a thin veil of plausible deniability with appeals to etymology. (We see the same with the word uppity.)

Instead of using niggardly, writers are encouraged to reach for a synonym: miserly, tight-fisted, penurious, stingy, and Malthusian could all fit the bill.

Nice: Don’t Be Silly

Santa Claus’ naughty and nice lists were quite different 700 years ago. When nice entered the language in the late 13th century, it meant “foolish” or “stupid.” It’s derived from the Latin nescius, literally “not-knowing.” In the late 1300s, the meaning shifted to indicate a person or actions considered excessively luxurious and then, by 1400, to denote someone who was finely arrayed, shy, or reserved, or something that was precise (as in the phrase “nice and slow”).

By the 1500s, nice was a word used to describe polite society — without any subtext of ignorance or foolishness. And the meaning of nice continued to shift with such rapidity through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that the writer’s intended meaning for the word was not always clear.

Naughty, too, has seen a great change. It was originally an adjective meaning “poor” or “needy.” It described someone who had naught — nothing.

In the evolution of a language, sometimes the words remain but the meaning of the word changes, and it has happened more often than you might think: A computer used to be a person who did calculations. Girl used to describe a child of any gender. In the 16th century, bully was a gender-neutral term of endearment.

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  1. Actually, no Michael. I’m not the same guy you knew back then, but he sounded like a good, positive friend! For starters I only turned 13 in May of ’70, and have always lived in Northwest Los Angeles (for better and worse).

    Bob Taylor, you’re right about the word ‘phrenology’. The problem is that it’s too intelligent a word for today’s ULTRA dumbed-down public!!

    As far as ‘Millennial’ goes I agree with you on that point too, which is a nice addition to mine. To add another one, I don’t think millennials (or nearly ANYONE ELSE for that matter) even KNOWS what the previously obscure word REALLY means!

    They just know it in the semi-new definition of a young adult age group (with what you said). They don’t know it that it means a one thousand year time frame. 1000-2000, 2000-3000, etc.

    If one of the late night talk show hosts did a “man on the street” interview (like Leno’s Jay-Walking) of people and asked them what millennial really means, they’d be thrown off by the word ‘really’ preceding it, but would just start talking about hairbuns, preferences for skateboards, etc. I’d be shocked if even ONE person would know about the thousand year period; older people as well!

    Put up a card with MMVIII on it and they’ll no idea that’s 2018! Show them MCMLXXXVIII and you can practically bet your life no one would know that’s 1988. MCM (19), LXXX (50+30=80) and VIII (5+3=8)

    Another thing that needs to go away is saying ‘two thousand’ and this or that. Fortunately, overall, I am hearing the years pronounced ‘Twenty’ this or that, like we used to (and would still call) 1918; not One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighteen—-unless it’s on a wedding invitation; otherwise—NO!

    I actually DID hear a commercial the other day proclaiming “no interest until June, Two Thousand and Twenty-Three’, NOT ‘Twenty Twenty-Three’. Ignorance is not bliss; no offense to whoever said it once upon a time.

  2. I knew a Bob McGowen Jr at Lehigh U who graduated in 1970. Are you one and the same. You and Lee Fuller got me to run for class president and we won.

  3. I say bring back the word “phrenology.” What I don’t like about “Millenial” is that it makes it sound as though members of that generation are Destiny’s special children, and that only encourages something they want to believe anyway.

  4. A thought provoking article indeed about our changing language. Had no idea ‘oxygen’ came from such a difficult (first) word there. As far as ‘knocker-uppers’ goes, there are two really different possible meanings that come to mind if I had to guess the meaning, never having heard of this before.

    They’re kind of naughty, Andy. Of course how could they really be since such thoughts would be for naught? I never knew ‘nice’ didn’t have such nice origins. It’s a nice word that sounds nice, I think.

    The one that’s probably most surprising is the word ‘girl’ being used to describe a child of either gender. If the word has a 2nd chance of making a 16th century comeback, it may be in the 21st century. I was waiting to get a haircut today and was looking through a recent issue of People magazine. (Don’t laugh at me now—-that’s all that was there!)

    There was a ‘Q & A’ with Ryan Reynolds, who has a daughter named James! No one asked why this GIRL was named James. It would have been one of the first questions I would have asked, but that’s just me.

    What I’m really waiting for, is for the word “ISSUES” to finally die down then out. It is the ultimate denial word for “PROBLEMS” everyone. As the use of ‘issues’ has been used as the COMPLETE replacement word FOR problems, we have A LOT MORE PROBLEMS. That’s what happens when a word is so inappropriately over used for so long it comes to mean absolutely nothing, which… apparently is the point. It’s succeeded there and will never go away. No.

    The word ‘millennial’ (itself) is such an ugly, cringe worthy sounding word. I had really hoped IT would go away shortly after the turn of the century, but of course not! There’s an episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ yet to be made, simply based on that word.


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