Hangman, Spare That Word: The English Purge Their Language

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For feminists examining muliebrity (the condition of being a woman), or soothsayers putting out their latest vaticination (prophecy), the available lexicon may soon get slimmer. The lexicographers behind Britain's Collins English Dictionary have decided to exuviate (shed) rarely used and archaic words as part of an abstergent (cleansing) process to make room for up to 2,000 new entries. "We want the dictionary to be a reflection of English as it is currently spoken," says Ian Brookes, managing editor of Collins, "rather than a fossilized version of the language."

Good luck with that. Here in Old Blighty, the birthplace of English, the dictionary's compilers face passionate resistance from language lovers who believe that any cull reduces the richness and variety that make language powerful — and leaves us all a bit dumber. "Newspapers are often accused of setting their reading level for 12-year-olds," one opponent wrote on an online message board. "Spare us dictionaries that do the same!"

Collins' editors know that old words die hard — and that some people will vilipend (regard with contempt) any execution without a fair trial. So they've offered the chance of a reprieve. They have made public 24 words that face deletion because editors could find no example of their use in their database of English-language books, newspapers, broadcasts and other media. If, by February 2009, a word reappears in that database with at least six "high quality" citations, it could be spared from the semantic dustbin. "We're looking to see if dropping a little stone in the pond of language actually does generate ripples," says Brookes.

A number of public figures in Britain have stepped forward to champion specific words, hoping to demonstrate they are compossible (possible in coexistence) with everyday speech. Andrew Motion, Britain's poet laureate since 1999, selected skirr, which refers to the rattling, scratchy noise that a bird's wings make during flight. "It's an appealing word with an onomatopoeic value and resonance," he says. Motion, an avid bird watcher, has already used the word on an evening radio program and hopes to include it in a poem if he can do so without "wrenching things around too much."

Stephen Pound, the Labour MP from Ealing North, will advocate caliginosity (dimness, darkness) on the floor of Parliament. "I shall be drawing the Prime Minister's attention in a fairly obscure and abstruse way to the word: 'Amid the global fiscal turmoil, we sought illumination but found only caliginosity.' " The exercise has already influenced Pound's speech: in the course of a 12-min. interview, he used the word 15 times.

Collins warns that it will discount any artificial use of the endangered words, meaning Motion's readers and Pound's constituents must actually take them up themselves. There's certainly interest in doing so. The Times of London asked readers to vote for the word they most felt should be spared from oblivion and attracted more than 11,000 votes in a week. The word embrangle (to confuse or entangle) won with 1,434 votes, while fubsy (short and stout) came in a distant second. Roborant (tending to fortify) and nitid (bright, glistening) failed to shine; they finished last, drawing roughly 550 votes between them.

Despite his deftness at manipulating language, Motion believes some words should be sacrificed for their clumsiness. "Nobody in their right mind, unless they are taking the piss, is going to say, 'I went on an agrestic retreat,' " he says, "because you've got the word rural to do it for you."

But reaction to the potential axing of words has revealed specialized meanings that seem to have escaped the dictionary's compilers. David Pybus, a perfumer in London, says agrestic's alternate meaning should qualify it for preservation: "It is used," he says, "in the perfume and flavor industry quite extensively to describe an aroma note or type which is 'of the countryside,' such as hay, heather, forest depths or meadow." Who knew? Elsewhere, fantasy-game devotees have rushed to the defense of periapt (a charm or amulet), which they know from the popular Dungeons & Dragons game, and geologists have pointed out the utility of griseous (streaked or mixed with gray) in describing rocks and minerals. Apparently, one man's linguistic recrement (waste, refuse) is another man's treasure.

(Click here for the list of endangered words and their definitions.)