Biologists reckon that most species that have ever existed are extinct. That is true of words, too. Of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 231,000 entries, at least a fifth are obsolete. They range from “aa”, a stream or waterway (try that in Scrabble), to “zymome”, “that constituent of gluten which is insoluble in alcohol”.

That is surely an undercounting. The English have an unusually rich lexicon, in part because first they were conquered (by the Vikings and Norman French) and then they took their turn conquering large swathes of the Earth, in Asia, North America and Africa. Thousands of new words entered the standard language as a result. Many more entered local dialects, which were rarely written down. The OED only includes words that have been written.

Dedicated researchers have managed to capture some of the unwritten ones. For the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), researchers conducted thousands of interviews—usually with older country folk—who still spoke their regional dialect. They found such treasures as “to pungle up”, meaning for someone to produce money or something else owed, and “the mulligrubs”: indigestion and, by extension, a foul mood.

The smaller and more local a word, the more danger it faces of dying out. DARE’s editors trekked out to find old people in the countryside precisely because younger urban speakers are more likely to adopt metropolitan norms, whether “broadcast standard” in America or “BBC English” in Britain. Other factors gave this homogenising trend a boost: advertising, which tends to standardise the names of things bought and sold in national markets, and the rise of American popular culture and global mass media in the second half of the 20th century.

A study published in 2012 found some evidence for this homogenisation. It looked through a huge trove of books published since 1800, scanned and made searchable by Google, and found that the death rate of words seems to have speeded up in English (and also in Spanish and Hebrew) since about 1950. One cause is the death of perfect synonyms in an era of mass communications: the words “radiogram” and “roentgenogram”, both meaning the same thing, were eventually edged out by “x-ray”, the world having no need for three labels for the same thing.

But DARE’s editors resist the standardisation hypothesis. What people call their grandparents—for example, “gramps and gram” or “mee-maw and papaw”—is more immune to the steamroller of national norms. In fact, these words are especially stubborn precisely because they give people an emotional connection to where they come from.


The Evolving English WordBank chronicles and preserves dialect