Word Matters Podcast

How Words Are Dropped from the Dictionary

Word Matters, Episode 61

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We talk all the time about how words are entered. But what about the ones that fall away? How are those decisions made? Let's get into it.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: words come and they go, including from dictionaries. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I, explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

While we tend to focus on the dictionary's ever-expanding breadth, the lexicon does sometimes lose a few members and dictionaries sometimes shed a few words. Today, we'll talk about what kinds of words get dropped from our dictionaries and why.

Peter Sokolowski: We have a letter from Joanna who writes, "I enjoy your podcast. I have a question for you. You have covered how words are added to the dictionary. How do you decide when to drop a word and no longer include it in the dictionary?" Now, there is a good question.

Ammon Shea: Isn't it bribes, usually money, vacation houses. We take most forms of currency. It's just, you got to know who to speak to.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. But that's a great question. And in point of fact, I have to say that is a question that is frequently asked in sort of Q&A sessions. It's not usually the first question, it's after people have listened usually to a part of a lecture about how words are added, that they come naturally to this question. And it's a really good question. And it's got a kind of a complicated answer. The answer I'd love to give is that we never drop a word and in principle, these words are, they were important enough to be added at one point to the dictionary and why would they be removed? Well, there are actually a couple of good reasons to remove words from the dictionary. One is just currency and for our Collegiate Dictionary, for example, it had to remain a certain size and a certain cost and if a word really fell out of favor and had not been used in decades, it was often retired from the Collegiate Dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Now it can't be retired if people are still reading the books that it does appear in.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: So it really has to fall out of use. It's not even in the novels that you're assigned in college or something like that, right? It has to be like really obscure.

Peter Sokolowski: With really specific examples, right?

Ammon Shea: Shakespeare is the most obvious example. And even in terms of Shakespeare, there are a few cases where we have dropped elements of his vocabulary. But when Merriam-Webster, when Philip Gove was editing the 1961 Third New International Dictionary, there was an enormous shift away from the Second International Dictionary which had been published...

Peter Sokolowski: Which was a huge dictionary.

Ammon Shea: Right, published in 1934. So there's several decades of space between these two dictionaries. And when the editors were putting together, the third, they made the decision to basically drop any word which was not in common currency by the year 1755. An arbitrary date but it corresponded rather neatly to the first edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.

They did make two notable exceptions. One was for the works of Shakespeare. If a word shows up in Shakespeare, they thought it's still going to be looked at and so they kept it in, even if it was no longer current by that point. And the other was for Chaucer. And again, it's arbitrary, but so much of our...

Peter Sokolowski: It must have been determined that those were two common core college level English literature classes that people were going to have to take.

Emily Brewster: Right. Certainly if anybody was going to be reading 16th century or early 18th century, 15th century work they, those are the ones that an owner of the Collegiate Dictionary or of the Unabridged Dictionary is likely to encounter.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: And yet this gets us into a little bit into philosophy of lexicography and we've talked about this before, but that is that the Webster tradition, especially the collegiate tradition has always been a synchronic tradition, which is to say that it sort of measures the active current vocabulary of American English, as opposed to a diachronic dictionary, diachronic meaning across time, such as the Oxford English dictionary, which is measuring a thousand years of history of the English language. So kind of different missions and so this is a little exception to that.

Ammon Shea: Now, again, we do have most Shakespeare, some of the regrettable things that we've taken out, my favorite is the word neighbor-stained, which we define as "stained with the blood of neighbors." And that was in the 1934 New International and it was not in the 1961, it was taken out. That comes from, of course, Romeo and Juliet, in which the prince says "Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel."

Emily Brewster: I want to go into the paper files and see if there is a discussion about that because there may have been...

Ammon Shea: I think I know where you're going with this and I think you're right.

Emily Brewster: You think that it was considered self-explanatory?

Ammon Shea: I think they thought of it as two different words, even though I believe in the original it was hyphenated.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, that gets us a to another sort of broader question and there's so many examples that we'll give, but another guideline is the encyclopedic entry and encyclopedic entries were, at one time, more common in our dictionaries. And in fact, Webster's Second from 1934, I think you can safely call an encyclopedic dictionary, it had entries for things like George Washington or the Eiffel Tower or Mount Rushmore and those are things that we would today refer to as proper nouns. In other words, the term Mount Rushmore doesn't actually mean anything, it's a label for a place. And it was determined by Philip Gove, I think mostly to save space, but also to kind of conserve the sanctity of the lexical project of the dictionary, to not include proper nouns. So all of the proper nouns were removed from the dictionary at that time in 1961.

And that was regarded as a scandalous development by many people...

Ammon Shea: Right. Heresy.

Peter Sokolowski: That it was a real, real problem. It leads to a special set of rules. One of my favorite kinds of rules is that the names in Webster's Second, the names of the characters in Shakespeare's plays and the Greek and Roman gods, for example, were all entries in the dictionary and those are proper nouns. So in order for one of those names to be preserved, to remain in the dictionary, it has to have a meaning, a lexical meaning that is different from the actual label, from the name. So for example, the term Romeo is often used to mean simply "a young male lover." And so Romeo is in our dictionaries, but another character's name like Juliet, for example, isn't.

Emily Brewster: That's right. It has to have, have an extended meeting, like Don Juan is also defined.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, a good example. I believe Hamlet was defined as "a young man beset with indecision."

Ammon Shea: It also wasn't just encyclopedic information that we took out. For instance, in the Second Unabridged, we would include commonly used foreign words.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, a whole category of words.

Ammon Shea: And those were offset by double brackets.

Peter Sokolowski: And to show that these are not naturalized English words that we would call borrowings, but rather acknowledge to be foreign terms.

Ammon Shea: Right, one of my favorites was, because I love the definition was emporte, E-M-P-O-R-T-E, which I believe we defined in 1934 as "irritated, beyond self possession." A really poetic turn of phrase. I hope whoever defined that one, just kind of like stuck the pen in the drawer and just said, I'm going to take off the rest of the day.

Peter Sokolowski: And in French, what it means is, literally means, "carried away." It has to be said that dictionary was a tome, it weighed as much as 18 pounds, depending on which version you got. It had an encyclopedia and a dictionary, it was sort of a one stop shopping for home reference.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with more words that used to be in the dictionary. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And from more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We're talking about the philosophical difference between Webster's Second and Webster's Third and part of the impetus for this re-imagining had to do with the great expansion of the language in that period of time between those two dictionaries. So the English language had expanded so much and Webster's Second published in 1934 was, I believe, the largest mass-produced book ever.

Peter Sokolowski: In American publishing.

Emily Brewster: In American publishing. So I always use the phrase "portable and affordable." You need your print dictionaries to be portable and affordable.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: And Webster's Third, which came out in 1961 that had all this vocabulary stripped from it, is only barely portable, only barely affordable, right? It still is an enormous book because they had to make room for all this other vocabulary. In the current age of electronic dictionaries, in the age of the internet, we don't have to do this anymore and yet we still do remove things sometimes.

Ammon Shea: One quick aside and I hope I'm not coming across as contentious, but I think it was 1911, The Century Dictionary did issue a single volume, over about 9500 page work.

Peter Sokolowski: Point being this was mass-produced.

Ammon Shea: This was.

Peter Sokolowski: But Webster's Second must have outsold that by like a hundred to one.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely, because, this was the most impractical book I've ever seen and it was also bound entirely in brown corduroy.

Peter Sokolowski: I've seen it in your house.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. And every time you see it, you think somebody killed their grandmother's sofa and wrapped it in and that. It was technically mass produced, but I'm sure it was utter failure. So...

Emily Brewster: I am very glad to learn about that because that is a true exception.

Ammon Shea: It was more than twice the size of Webster's Second. It was just really unreasonable.

Peter Sokolowski: The editor of that dictionary was a former Merriam-Webster editor, I believe. The editor of The Century Dictionary.

Ammon Shea: Dwight Whitney.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. He was one of the principle definers for Webster's unabridged in 1864. So, there are lots of connections and we have to talk about specific words that were dropped. I can think of one, which is a word I know from Sherlock Holmes, from the Hound of the Baskervilles and the word is gooseberry and gooseberry not meaning a particular kind of fruit, but gooseberry in British English, meaning "an indulgent chaperone."

Emily Brewster: Oh, that's such a good word. What a shame to drop it.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a great word and it's in Webster's Second, but not in Webster's Third. And I always feel that absence, I feel like first of all, a lot of people read Conan Doyle and that word probably was an oversight. It probably should have stayed.

Emily Brewster: You know, Peter, you've got the power to do something about this.

Peter Sokolowski: We should probably replace it.

Emily Brewster: The words that come to my mind when people ask this question, "What words leave the dictionary?" Often it has to do with changes in technology. So, for example, in 1961, in Webster's Third, we included an entry for color film and defined it as "a photographic film used for making color pictures." That entry is no longer appropriate in a world where nobody uses film anymore. You can certainly understand its meaning from knowing the definition of color and knowing the definition of film. The technology has changed in such a way that the dictionary users, set of information that they have in their head, renders this definition no longer necessary. There are also terms like hepatectomize. Do you know that one?

Peter Sokolowski: No.

Emily Brewster: It means to excise the liver of, it used to be in the Unabridged, but it was removed a few years ago because it's just too rare. Now both hepatectomy and hepatectomized, the adjectival participle, they continue to be included in the Unabridged and in the Collegiate and in the merriam-webster.com dictionary, but hepatectomize, apparently no such luck anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm glad to hear it. When people ask me, I usually say that the words that are removed from the Collegiate Dictionary are usually words you would never notice. They're so boring and they are often words that fall kind of low on the scale of lexical intensity. Two words that were removed from the collegiate print edition were plantsman, meaning "gardener," and crossbowman, meaning "one who wields a crossbow," partly because, now they're both compound terms. You could figure out what a crossbowman is, if you looked up crossbow and man and also they were self-evident to a certain extent and they were compounds and they both took up two lines. So they were removed.

Ammon Shea: I disagree emphatically because in gardening circles plantsman has a very specific meaning referring to somebody who's not just dealing with plants, but like somebody who's skilled with plants.

Peter Sokolowski: An expert gardener is actually what we had.

Ammon Shea: Right. And I think that is not obvious from just plantsman.

Peter Sokolowski: I agree and yet, because of the balance of saving space and currency and frequency, so this is the kind of word...

Ammon Shea: It's still current in gardening. This should be jargon but if you read gardening books, you will see something about plantsmen, or plantswomen quite often. It's not...

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting. Now these decisions were made before the advent of good large corpora to search and so we were probably not seeing enough. And this is a part of the problem of the pre-digital era, but two words that were removed that are much more colorful than those are tattle-tale gray, which was an entry in a Merriam-Webster dictionary in the old days. And it referred to, I think from the 1950s and 60s, an advertising campaign for laundry detergent and tattle-tale gray had to do with gray around the collar. And ultimately I believe for the 11th Collegiate in 2003, that was dropped.

And another term that was dropped was the term snallygaster. Now, this one is also very colorful, snallygaster meaning "a shrewd unprincipled person" and one of the reasons it's kind of an interesting example is, it's one of the very few that we have subsequently put back in. And that's because the word has had a bit of a renaissance and it's kind of come back. People have used it in writing more frequently. And so it was one where we probably recognized that it should never have come out in the first place.

Ammon Shea: I think though, that you're making an excellent point, which is that for most people, the words that are disappearing and they're not the ones that they notice, words disappear largely from disuse, are from lack of applicability here. And the things that we frequently come across is that people either accuse the dictionary of mandating things about the language. Or they think that's what we do. Right? People think that we choose which words to go in and in actuality, we don't choose which words to go into the dictionary. The English-speaking people choose, they vote, as we've said before, as Mignon Fogarty said so eloquently that people are voting with usage.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Ammon Shea: People vote by using a word and when it gets enough votes, we take notice and we put it in. And people vote by not using a word as well.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Ammon Shea: It's not our decision per se. We're just trying to, as best as we can, keep up with the uses.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. They walked away from a word and therefore it falls from use. It happens.

Emily Brewster: That's right. If everybody started spelling eccentrical, excentrical E-X-C-E-N-T-R-I-C-A-L we would put it back in. Gosh, darn it. We do include the spelling with two C's, that also is archaic variant of eccentric.

Peter Sokolowski: And if enough people start using neighbor-stained, that will go back in too.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Let's not wish that though.

Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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