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.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now