In Celebration of Lost Words

Oxford English Dictionaries

Naughty, nice, silly, sophisticated, awesome, awful… what do these words have in common? Perhaps they could easily describe your before and after holiday festivities, but their relatively bland semantics belie more curious origins.

They all happen to be lost words. In a sense, that is. Perhaps they’re not quite the same as obsolete terms that some linguists are trying to make happen, like “quacksalver” (a pedlar of false cures), “percher” (a snob who aspires to higher status) and “dowsabel” (basically “bae” for an earlier, more polysyllabic generation) that might awhape (stupefy with fear) you if you’re forced to define them. Lost word (and food) enthusiast John L. Idol, Jr is partial to “belly timber” and other weird and obsolete food terms for the holiday season, such as “porknell, gundygut, greedygut, bellygod and tenterbelly.” Unlike these, more familiar words like naughty and nice are still used, and they’re now so commonplace that we think we know exactly what they mean. “Naughty” is just mild-mannered mischief, while “nice” is that inoffensive agreeableness that serves all seasons. Simple, stable, solid semantics.

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every month, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

When Words Remain But Their Meanings Change

But stamped on these lifeless things can be read those passions which yet survive. At some point in their lexical histories their original meanings died and have been revived into a mere semblance of their former selves. In some cases, the meaning changed so drastically (and this never ceases to amaze me), that we can blithely use these words today almost as the antithesis of what they actually once meant. Take “sophisticated,” which now wholly refers to something elegant, refined, of a high quality, yet originally meant practically just the opposite, something corrupted, adulterated, dishonest or impure. “Awesome” is used less and less for anything other than something super nice and impressive, which can be very confusing when considering the awesome and destructive power of nature in this year alone.

When Shakespeare’s Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing speaks of “this naughty man,” “naughty” expressed something much stronger and much worse than a childish transgression or something lightly improper. Though it may sound silly to our ears now, it had the impact then of something wicked, evil, and villainous. And by “villain” I mean someone not so nice, to put it mildly, as opposed to its original meaning, which was a reference to farmers (essentially a guy from a villa). Yes, all those super villains in your summer blockbusters are deep down really just country bumpkins at heart. (Farmers really had it rough, as “boorish” and “churlish” also stem from references to much maligned farming folk).

As for “nice,” it’s definitely had a semantic rollercoaster ride from a Latin root that meant “stupid, ignorant, foolish” to “fussy, fastidious” to becoming polite society’s catchall, “a very nice word indeed. It does for everything” as Jane Austen once wrote. The crazy semantic shift for “nice” from negative to blandly positive caused a bit of a confusing time during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it became legitimately difficult to figure out what people meant by it, the OED tells us. Semantic change certainly puts a very different spin on Santa’s end of year naughty and nice list.

After all, sometimes language goes a bit silly. Speaking of “silly,” there’s another lost little word that’s been diluted out of existence until it’s almost of the opposite of what it once meant. It went from meaning “blessed, happy, fortunate” to “foolish, stupid.” The recent slang pejorative “gay” to mean something stupid or pointless has branched off in a similar way, from a now archaic “happy, full of joy, carefree” meaning that had itself moved to the eventually more widely accepted word sense of “homosexual” (which initially had made what was once a common, neutral term somewhat taboo).

Generally, more words are added to the English language than are lost.

The original heart of these words then, is lost. How did this come to be? Semantic change is a force to be reckoned with, as words are used in novel ways, through such things as slang, taboo, analogy, to narrow or expand multiple meanings for a word, or to flip flop into amelioration (making a word positive) or pejoration (making it negative) until it’s radically different.

It’s a pretty wild outcome for language, which we unthinkingly treat as a stable, prescriptive, precious set of grammar rules, fixed and unvarying. But of course language is not static (and can’t be made to stand in the same spot in the nineteenth century just for all the grammar rules to work out). Language change happens, and sometimes we gain a thing and sometimes we lose.

What Becomes of Obsolete Words?

We tend to eagerly focus on the weird new expressions and lexical innovations that enter the language and don’t often consider how words and their core meanings die. Generally, more words are added to the English language than are lost, so should we care what happens to obsolete words and archaic meanings that no one uses anymore? There’s more than enough shiny new words to go around.

As the year draws to a close, the lexicographically inclined look forward to the annual tradition of hunting those new words and new meanings that seem to define the year. (The now ubiquitous “fake news” is the Collins Dictionary’s early take). And why not? It’s certainly an exciting time to be a word hunter. Neologisms abound, and thanks to the warp(ed) speed of the internet, are born, picked up, and passed on with dizzying alacrity, especially new slang borne on the viral wings of an internet meme, before fading just as fast.

But the fashion of new words entering the language can sometimes have a profound effect on how older words and expressions are used and in what contexts. Words jostle for place in an already crowded space, and some words, through analogy and social pressure, can shift words and word senses that are like them. Words can even collapse into homonyms, causing what looks like the same word to have markedly different meanings and even appear to be its own opposite. An example is the word “cleave,” which can mean to cut apart (from Old English clēofan) or bind together (from OE clifian), from two separate words that were once pronounced differently. It can all be awfully confusing.

So as the size of dictionaries increases it seems only natural that we might stop using some archaic terms. Words can become obsolete and are lost for many reasons—slang that was once current can fall out of favor, words can develop taboo senses, and old-fashioned, regional and even scientific and technical terms may no longer be needed by a different generation.

Many words have a chance of revival.

But practically speaking, we cautiously seem to prioritize the words we know best, particularly in record. My sometime use of “fossick” (a common term in Australian and New Zealand English meaning to search for something) was once challenged as too archaic and hard to understand. Mind you, that Antipodeans know what the archaic term “girt” means is largely thanks to its appearance in the Australian national anthem, in the expression “girt by sea.” It goes to show that if we don’t use many of these terms, they can be easily lost. Yet modern life finds it easier to drop the words one would need a dictionary to understand, and in some ways, it’s a pity, because where words are lost, they may also be found.

How Lost Words Get Found Again

The Oxford English Dictionary is a perfect graveyard of buried words, as once a word enters, it never leaves, no matter how obsolete or archaic, or so they say. But even the most complete historical record of the English language was found to have had words secretly removed by former editor Robert Burchfield in the 1970s, mostly loanwords or expressions from international English (including Americanisms, such as “wake-up”). Even professional word lovers, then, can find the loss of some words a mere bagatelle (“mere” once meaning “pure” but now used to disparage trivialities even further) and not worth noting further.

Why bother with words we no longer use? In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary found it expedient to drop nature words that “included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.” Aside from the sadness of the loss of nature’s primacy from modern childhood, it isn’t out of the question that some of these words may some day need to return.

In much of the literature which has, in the past, discussed obsolete words as though it’s a done deal, you might notice that many words have a chance of revival. All is not lost. For example, the aforementioned “greedygut” is still somewhat current in its original form and it seems the reported death of words like “ethnicity,” “dude,” (albeit somewhat changed), and “hue” by scholars in the past have at times been greatly exaggerated, as many terms can end up revived and very much alive.

Without an historical understanding and record of these lexical losses, it can be hard for us to fully appreciate the writings of the past, to learn from literature and poetry and the record of language, and the intentions of those writing it. For that alone, we might consider putting in a good word for the words we have lost.


JSTOR Citations

Semantic Changes

By: Edward L. Thorndike

The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Oct., 1947), pp. 588-597

University of Illinois Press

The Survival of Belly-Timber

By: John L. Idol, Jr.

American Speech, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 156-158

Duke University Press

Obsolete English Words: Some Recent Views

By: Edwin Berck Dike

The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1935), pp. 351-365

University of Illinois Press

Multiple Meaning and Change of Meaning in English

By: Robert J. Menner

Language, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1945), pp. 59-76

Linguistic Society of America

Auden, Yeats, and the Word "Silly": A Study in Semantic Change

By: Edith Whitehurst Williams

South Atlantic Review, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Nov., 1981), pp. 17-33

South Atlantic Modern Language Association

Semantics. The Ups and Downs

By: J. D. Sadler

The Classical Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Feb. - Mar., 1973), pp. 262-267

The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. (CAMWS)

Words and Their Changing Ways

By: J. Estill Alexander and Paul C. Burns

Elementary English, Vol. 51, No. 4 (April 1974), pp. 477-481

National Council of Teachers of English

On the Rise of Epistemic Meanings in English: An Example of Subjectification in Semantic Change

By: Elizabeth Closs Traugott

Language, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 31-55

Linguistic Society of America

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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