The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is renowned for its extensive coverage of the English language, encapsulating a vast array of words, including those deemed obsolete. Contrary to some beliefs, once a word is included in the OED, it is not removed, illustrating a linguistic archive more than a current lexicon. This practice, however, varies among dictionaries, particularly in their concise editions, where space constraints may lead to the omission of less commonly used or less important words.

Understanding the criteria for a word’s inclusion in a dictionary is crucial. It’s a common misconception that a word’s absence from a dictionary invalidates its existence. Professional lexicographers often refute this notion. For instance, Erin McKean, co-founder of Wordnik and former chief editor of American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, emphasizes that all words are valid from inception; dictionaries merely track their usage.

Merriam-Webster’s guidelines mirror this approach. They include words based on widespread, sustained usage, leaving out those still gaining traction or too specialized. Their criteria do not measure the ‘realness’ of a word but its prevalence in documented usage.

The debate around what constitutes proper language use is often highlighted by linguists. Arnold Zwicky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, criticizes the notion of restricting language to a set of prescribed norms, advocating for a more nuanced understanding that reflects the dynamic nature of language.

Supporting this perspective is a study published in “Science,” titled “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books.” The study, analyzing language in over 5 million books, found that a significant portion of words used in these texts are not documented in standard dictionaries, indicating a vast “lexical dark matter.”

The OED clarifies its role as a descriptive, not prescriptive, resource. It aims to reflect language as it is used, rather than dictating its use. This approach acknowledges the fluid and evolving nature of language.

Regarding the breadth of the English lexicon, the OED contains about 600,000 entries. However, estimates suggest the actual number of words in the English language could be double this figure, considering variations like regional slang and obscure terms. Wordnik, aiming to document every English word, boasts nearly seven million entries, further illustrating the expansive nature of language.

Criteria for Removing Words from Dictionaries

Dictionaries evolve with the language they document. As the English language changes, certain words become obsolete and may be removed from dictionaries. This process is overseen by dictionary editors who assess the relevance and usage of words. A word might be removed if it falls out of common usage and is no longer relevant in contemporary language. For instance, words that were once common in older dialects or specific historical contexts might be phased out if they’re no longer understood or used by the general population.

Obsolescence in Language

When words fall out of use, they are described as “obsolete.” This term applies to words that are no longer in active circulation in the language. It’s a natural process in any living language, as new words emerge, existing ones change meanings, and others fade into disuse. The shift in language reflects cultural, technological, and social changes over time.

Lexicographers in Dictionary Updates

Lexicographers are the professionals responsible for updating dictionaries. Their work involves researching words, understanding their usage, and making decisions about which words to include or remove from the dictionary. This process is meticulous and involves a comprehensive understanding of language trends, corpus linguistics, and societal changes.

Longest Word in the English Dictionary

A notable aspect of English lexicons is the presence of exceptionally long words. The longest word in major English dictionaries is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” a term for a lung disease caused by inhaling fine silica particles. This word exemplifies the language’s capacity for technical and scientific terms that can reach extraordinary lengths.

Recent Words Removed from Dictionaries in 2023

In 2023, certain words were removed from dictionaries or highlighted for removal due to overuse, misuse, or redundancy. This includes words like “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time), “inflection point,” “quiet quitting,” and “gaslighting.” Each removal reflects broader linguistic trends and societal attitudes towards language use. The removal of “irregardless,” for instance, signifies a shift towards standardized, precise language, as this word has been a subject of debate among linguists and grammarians.

Impact of Digital Media on Word Obsolescence

Digital media has significantly accelerated the evolution of language, raising questions about its impact on word obsolescence. As new platforms emerge, they bring novel linguistic expressions that quickly gain popularity. Conversely, words that were popular in older digital mediums may become obsolete faster due to rapid changes in technology and online communication trends. The debate here focuses on whether digital media accelerates the retirement of words from dictionaries, or if it simply leads to the creation of more dynamic, evolving lexicons.

Regional Dialects and Dictionary Representation

The treatment of regional dialects in mainstream dictionaries is a contentious topic. Words commonly used in regional dialects often struggle to find a place in widely used dictionaries, unless they gain widespread acceptance. The debate centers on the responsibility of dictionaries to represent these dialects accurately. Should dictionaries strive to be more inclusive of regional variations, or should they prioritize a more standardized version of the language?

Social Movements in Language Evolution

Social movements have a profound impact on language, often championing the introduction or elimination of certain terms. Activism can lead to the recognition of new terms or the rejection of words considered outdated or offensive. This raises a debate about the extent to which social trends should influence the decision to include or remove words from dictionaries. How do lexicographers balance linguistic purity with the evolving sensibilities of society?

Technology and Artificial Intelligence in Lexicography

The integration of technology and artificial intelligence in lexicography presents new challenges and opportunities. AI can analyze vast amounts of text to identify emerging patterns and changes in language use. This capability could lead to a more data-driven approach to adding or removing words from dictionaries. However, there is a debate about the reliability of AI in understanding the nuances of language evolution and cultural context.

Historical and Literary Language

The role of dictionaries in preserving historical and literary language is a subject of debate. While language evolves, there is a need to maintain a record of words that, although obsolete in everyday use, hold historical and literary significance. The question arises: should dictionaries serve as repositories for these words to support understanding of historical texts, or should they focus solely on contemporary usage? This debate touches on the balance between the educational role of dictionaries and their practical utility in everyday communication.

Dictionaries are not the definitive arbiters of what constitutes a word. Their role is to document language as it evolves and is used in various contexts. The inclusion or omission of words in dictionaries is less about linguistic legitimacy and more about practical considerations and usage patterns. Language, in its essence, is a constantly evolving entity, adapting to new expressions and meanings.