The complex process that dictionaries use to decide which words are obsolete

A word has to be pretty popular to make it into the dictionary in the first place.
A word has to be pretty popular to make it into the dictionary in the first place.
Image: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
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As a child, one of my favorite books was my mom’s dictionary from the 1960s. The words that delighted me then—like crapulence (hangover) and dischuffed (displeased)—have stuck with me for over 20 years, despite my never having seen them appear anywhere in print other than that particular dictionary.

Each year, 1,000 or so words enter the English language by officially making it into an authority like the Oxford English Dictionary. But it’s a lot easier to add a new word to the dictionary than it is to take one away—even a little-used one like dischuffed. A look at the process by which dictionaries eliminate words from their roundups reveals that it’s actually pretty hard for a word to get the boot.

“We rarely take words out of our dictionaries,” says Mary O’Neill, managing editor of the largest single-volume English language dictionary, the unabridged Collins English Dictionary, which clocks in at 2,305 pages. “This is especially true of our larger dictionaries. If we find that a word has fallen out of general use, or is not used as much as it was before, we usually label such words as ‘obsolete,’ ‘archaic,’ or ‘old-fashioned’ rather than deleting them entirely.”

As examples of words that have stuck around despite having fallen out of use, she points to dandiprat—“a small boy”—and healthsome, which means “salubrious.” “We are always aware that someone, somewhere may look for the word at some point,” she says.

Moreover, since print dictionaries are designed for different audiences—from children to second-language learners—it’s rare for a word to be categorically eliminated. As lexicographer Diane Nicholls tells me, “If a word isn’t in one dictionary, you’ll probably find it in another if you look at enough of them.”  

That said, lexicographers do have a process for deciding whether it’s fair to label a word as obsolete—the final resting place of an obscure or out-of-use word. The evidence for whether a word is in current use, or “quotation evidence,” comes from analyzing huge databases of written and spoken language, collected from a range of sources including academic journals, novels, newspapers, magazines, blogs, emails, social media, TV, and radio. Collins relies on its constantly updated, 4.5 billion-word computer-compiled database of language in current use, while the OED refers to its database of 2.5 billion words.

Peter Gilliver, senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, OED historian and author of The Making of the OED, explains that the labeling of a word as obsolete relies on fairly conclusive evidence based on a set of rules. Words that have fallen out of use because the item is no longer used today, for example Albertype (an early kind of photograph), but which would still be useful for historians or historical novelists, would be labeled Now hist. To be labeled Obs., the general rule “is that if we can find no quotation evidence for an item that dates from 1930 or later, we label the item as obsolete.” Depending on the size and audience of the print version of the dictionary, those words may or may not survive a cull. But even obsolete words remain in the online reference.

Some words avoid obsolescence if they are formed from compounds of currently used words, even if they themselves do not meet the criteria above. “Because a word like livery is still current,” Gilliver says, “we don’t mark the extremely scarce derivative liveryless as obsolete because it is formed from elements which are still current and could be re-formed at any time.” But if the word hasn’t been in use since 1800, even compound ones get labeled obsolete.

The real pruning of a dictionary comes at a much earlier stage: A word has to be pretty popular to make it into the dictionary in the first place. Print dictionaries tend to be particularly careful about adding trendy new words, since they can come and go from common parlance quite quickly.

By contrast, “archaic or dated expressions are arguably the sort of word that people like to look up,” says Angus Stevenson, head of content at Oxford Dictionaries. “Also, novelists often make an effort to use such unusual vocabulary.” Few are likely to lament, or perhaps even notice, if “information superhighway” or “cassingle” aren’t in the dictionary. (For the record, “information superhighway” appears in the latest completely new print edition of the OED, from 2010, but “cassingle” has been cut from print.)

Personally, I find it reassuring to know that dictionaries take such a long view of vocabulary. If I could no longer mock rowdy drinkers for their next-day crapulence, I would be most dischuffed.