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One day I’m going to want to use the word “growlery.”

The Oxford English Dictionary is getting too big. Those people at Oxford who decide all about what words are actually words and what are just silly sounds people make when they talk are in a fix. They really need to add important terms like “mankini” and “retweet” to their formidable tome, but there’s just no room! Some words have got to go.

It’s a strange concept, isn’t it? Removing words from a dictionary? What makes these terms no longer acceptable to use? Of course, words fall out of common parlance first and then are no longer even seen in text, but they’re still words, aren’t they? What’s most interesting is that one of the words that will be removed from the most updated version of the reputable dictionary is “cassette tape,” a name for an item that while no longer in high demand, is still tucked away in quantity in many homes and shops.

I don’t mind so much that I will no longer be able to look up “brabble,” defined as “a platry noisy quarrel,” in the OED, should I ever come across it even once in the rest of my life, but it’s still a pretty fun word. Now that I know it exists (or, I suppose, existed) I kind of want to use it. That’s what language is—discovering and using new or old words to express not only meaning but your particular personality in writing or conversation.

These particulars, these words, help define authors and writers in specific styles. For a prolific or very distinct novelist, it’s not hard for readers of their works to be able to identify a passage as coming from that author, even if they have never seen the text before. New writers are compared to older, more accomplished authors if they use similar words or structure. Words and their definitions are more than a printed ascription in a book or online—they are defined more by their relevance to an era or place and by their resonance with an individual emotionally and personally. Why else would writers agonize for hours over the perfect word to put in an important dialogue or narrative?

I have nothing against, then, the addition of words, no matter how silly or trendy they might be, to the dictionary, but I do not understand the necessity of removing anything (save its unwieldy size) Words fallen out of use are still words and the ability to look them up upon reading or to use them in a piece of writing should not be curtailed. What do you think? Does it matter, really, in the long run?

8 Responses to One day I’m going to want to use the word “growlery.”

  1. Donn says:

    Whoa there, that sounds almost like ungood thoughtcrime to me!

  2. For a print volume, I can understand the need to save space by removing words. Otherwise they’ll eventually have to be printed in multiple volumes, and cost even more, and be less accessible that way. However, having worked in a library for a long time now, I’m witness to the huge migration from print to online sources for many reference items like this. Online, there are no restrictions, and even obscure words can live on for posterity! So it’s not really problematic to me if they downsize the print version by including only the words most likely to be relevant, since so many dictionaries are online. (Even free ones! But if not free, that’s what libraries are for.)

    (OK, there are some technological restrictions, but I don’t think they’ll pose much of an obstacle in this scenario.)

    • Emily says:

      Short of a nuclear apocalypse, the written word is headed for a digital future. That future will include the ability to maintain back lists in perpetuity, to digitize the great literature of the centuries, and to expand a dictionary endlessly.

      Twenty-five years ago my desktop computer was innovative. The screen was black, the letters bright yellow-orange and the storage medium a ‘diskette.’ But it had a small footprint compared to my previous dedicated word processor – a huge block of hardware which paired with its printer, took up the entire dining room table. And, that machine had no internal memory.

      Its been 30 years since I got that dedicated word processor…where will technology be in the next 30 years?

      What do I think about dropping words from a dictionary? Its silly and short sighted.

  3. Agreed. Downsizing print is one thing; eliminating words from a online resource is another. The litmus test for dictionary inclusion or exclusion shouldn’t be the equivalent of a popularity contest.

  4. Suma says:

    So agree! Why do words have to go out of a dictionary. That is what its meant for.

  5. I can see the sense of dropping out archaic words from a concise dictionary of the English Language, like say, you’re average Webster’s Collegiate or something that doesn’t purport to be a comprehensive dictionary of the English language, but I’ve always viewed the OED as more the latter, as opposed to the former. It’s about the history of the English language and is a research tool with regard to thagt usage. If you’re a writer writing a period piece, it’s a pretty valuable resource. But what’s a writer many years from now to do, if he decides to write a period piece about the prehistoric 1970′s and can’t find the term “cassette tape”? This all smacks of small-minded, misguided false economy to me.

    • D. A. Hosek says:

      Indeed. I wonder whether there might be some confusion here about which Oxford Dictionary this is meant to refer to. The OED itself, with its many volumes should NEVER drop an entry (unless it were to be discovered to be a spurious entry).

  6. pooks says:

    From print? Needs must.

    From digital?

    Never!

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