A fifth of the 231,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary are obsoleteveraltet, überholtobsolete. Which words are they, one might ask, and why did they die?
As “Johnson”, The Economist’s columnist on language, describes, English has always changed at a rapid rate. This was thanks in part to historical invasions of the English-speaking world (by the VikingWikingerVikings, the Normans, etc.) and in part to its own invasions (think of the British Empire). These days, the mass media play a major role, too.
English has always changed at a rapid rate
While certain obsolete words such as “respair”, meaning “hope’s return following a time of despair”, have been listed in dictionaries, others are never written down. So who notices when they to fadeverschwindenfade from use? In the US, experts from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) do: they have been searching the ruralländlich, bäuerlichrural US for words that need to be saved. Examples include “pungle up”, which means pay up, and “frog stranglerWürger(in)strangler” for heavy rain.
To illustrate the twilightZwielicht, hier etwa: diffuse Bedeutungtwilight some words to inhabitbewohnen, innehabeninhabit, Johnson looks at “wend”. It is known almost only from the expression “to wend one’s way somewhere”, meaning “to go somewhere slowly, not directly”. The columnist points out that wend was once much more widely used. In fact, the past tense of “wend” took the place of the old past tense of “to go”, which explains why nowadays we say “I went”.