September 02, 2011

How extinct are the drysalters?

Library capitalsThe Guardian has an article on how Collins is dropping 'endangered' words from their smaller dictionaries (via TYWKIWDBI). Among the words mentioned are aerodrome, charabanc, wittol, drysalter, alienism, stauroscope, succedaneum and supererogate. Apparently they are using a big corpus of text and monitoring usage, and if something drops out enough it is likely extinct.

However, Google ngrams is an alternative corpus. It turns out that while aerodrome certainly has lost much usage compared to its heyday in the 1940s it is still hanging on, occurring at about a twelfth of the maximum rate (in 0.00024% of all texts). There are still books with it in the title and text.

The other words have always been less common, but looks less extinct than one might expect. Succedaneum had its heyday in the early 19th century, but it is still more common the charabanc (popular in the 1920-1940 period). Alienism is hanging on, although the grand peak around 1985 is likely never coming back. Wittol has declined far, but still seems to be in use as is drysalter. And supererogate may be very uncommon in the corpus, but I certainly encounter it a few times a year (even use it myself) in discussions in the philosophy department. The only word that seems to really have gone out of use for longer periods is stauroscope; people have found better ways of measuring extinction angles in crystal sections.

I don't know if I trust Google ngram completely; a vast autogenerated corpus might contain mistakes. But looking at the links to books with the words suggest that indeed there are some usage. I guess it is more a matter of having an outer cut-off for Collins than true word extinction: no point in having the utterly unusual words taking up space in a dictionary.

It is interesting to see that transhumanism is now about as common as wittol. Yet I suspect more people understand the former than the later word. And it has 14 times more Google hits.

In the end, languages are unlike biospheres in that extinction isn't as permanent. Words encoded in text can be revived decades, centuries or millennia hence (consider Egyptian religious terminology), like seeds awaiting their chance. Of course their meanings might mutate with every revival, but that is another thing. "That is not dead that can eternal lie..."

Posted by Anders3 at September 2, 2011 12:14 PM