This is kind of a companion piece to yesterday’s post, being about obscure words none of us really use.
I’ve seen a lot of lists on social media and various websites about obscure words people need to be made aware of, or obsolete words which need to be brought back. For example, here’s a story I came across this morning on the BBC Culture website: Twenty-six words we don’t want to lose.
Here’s the full list of words from the article; see if you guess what one of my issues with the list might be:
How many of these had you already heard about? How many of them could you guess the meaning of? I feel safe assuming that the answer to both questions is close to zero. How easy would it then be to introduce them into general English usage?
Of course a word can become widely used if it fills a niche. If these words have a meaning relevant to modern life, and the English language currently lacks a word with that meaning, then they might take off. So let’s have a look at the meanings of a few of these words:
Vespering: heading in a westerly direction or towards the sunset
Ucalegon: a neighbour whose house is on fire
Schnapsidee: an impractical idea that sounds great when drunk
Proditomania: the irrational belief that everyone around you is a traitor
Lawrence: a heat haze
OK, so schnapsidee could be useful, and I’m sure Donald Trump and others in positions of power have felt a great deal of proditomania. But the others? I can’t imagine them ever being useful. Sure, they’re cute, and it’s interesting to read about words with such specific meanings. But when would you ever need to use a specific word to refer to your neighbour whose house is on fire? And why call the heat haze over told Lawrence when heat haze works fine?
Perhaps the most important thing to consider is: why didn’t these words already become successful English words in their own right? If people wanted to use them, and they had a useful function, we’d still be using them today. That’s how words fail or succeed: if people notice them and choose to use them, they’ll enter the lexicon. And quickly, too.
But these words already had their chance and it didn’t work out. If people didn’t want to use them before, why would they do so now? It might seem a bit harsh, but I like the purely democratic nature of how languafe evolves. What most people use tends to become the standard form.
Now you can obviously argue that lists like this are just a bit of fun, and that no-one’s arguing seriously that we should begin a concerted effort to reintroduce these words. They’re just a way for us to see some funny words with funny meanings. And there’s undoubtedly a lot of truth to that. But I still think that there’s a subtext to a lot of these articles, suggesting that language has been dumbed down, and things were better in the olden days.
A lot of this is undoubtedly fuelled by nostalgia. Things always seemed to be better in the past, and so much of modern slang seems idiotic. But don’t we all resist changes in such basic expressions of ourselves as the language we use? When we’re younger we can accept a degree of change, but we all reach an age where the language we’re using seems like the only possible reasonable way to express oneself. Any language younger people use instead is bound to infuriate us, and we look to an imagined ideal past to make things better.
But despite the evolution of language, we still all have an incredibly large vocabulary that hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years. I know I never feel like my vocabulary is insufficient for my writing.
So don’t fret too much about how inarticulate people might seem. We’re all quite capable of expressing ourselves adequately, and we certainly don’t need to give obsolete words another chance at life.