10 Words English has Lost, and 10 Words It's Gained
It’s impossible to estimate how many words there are in the English language.
Some estimates suggest that English has over a million words, but it all depends on what counts as a word. If a word is used only by doctors in a particular specialism, does it still count? If a word is used only by 14 year olds on a particular online forum, does that still count? Plenty of people would say yes to the former and no to the latter, but what if the 14 year olds significantly outnumbered the doctors? Are the people who use it what determines whether something counts as a word, or is there some other way of determining it?
What’s fun about English is that several factors conspire to mean that it has a huge turnover of words – so any count of the number of words in the language will probably be out of date by this time tomorrow. One factor is that so many people speak English, and in so many diverse ways. It’s a first language for many, and a second language or lingua franca for many more. There can hardly be a language in the world that isn’t used alongside English somewhere, and this provides lots of opportunities for English to pick up new words and concepts from languages on every continent of the world.
Then there’s the fact that English doesn’t have any central academy or the like to rule on whether words are valid or not. Words enter the English language when English speakers use them; nothing more than that. This makes English much more open to rapid change that language such as French and German that do use an academy system.
The end result is a language that has lost words over time, but has also gained lots of new words. Here are 10 fascinating words we’ve lost, and 10 more that we’ve gained.
Words We’ve Lost:
1. To gorgonise
This delightful word started to appear in print in the 1830s, and had almost disappeared by the 1960s, though it still crops up every now and again. The Victorian era, with its vogue for Gothic horror, is fitting for the word “gorgonise”, which means to paralyze or turn to stone – as happens when you face the mythical Gorgon’s stare.
In a sentence: “Horror gorgonised me when I heard tell of what had occurred in the crypt.”
“Wyrd” is an Anglo-Saxon word that is tricky to translate into modern English, as it relates to spiritual concepts that don’t map onto modern systems of belief. It means something along the lines of fate, destiny or even doom. The word isn’t entirely dead – modern-day pagans have picked up the concept and intended to revive it – but for them it’s a religious term, while Anglo-Saxons seemed to have no difficulty using the concept alongside Christianity.
In a sentence: “He went into the battle accepting wyrd, knowing what must be, must be.”
Another Anglo-Saxon word, “kith” is now almost exclusively used in the idiom “kith and kin”. Your kin are your relatives; your kith refers to your friends, acquaintances, neighbours, fellow countrymen and so on. A modern-day equivalent might be say simply “your people”. It could be a handy term for those who are important to you but don’t fit into any single category such as “friends” – sadly, no one’s used it much since about 1730.
In a sentence: “We’re not related, but that doesn’t matter – she’s my kith.”
A wonderfully piratical-sounding word, “messmate” started to appear in print around 1750, peaked in 1846, and has been fading steadily ever since. A “mess” is a dining hall for soldiers and sailors – it brings to mind images of bustling benches and grumbling about inadequate food. A “messmate” is like a roommate or a housemate – it’s the friend you spend time with when you’re in the mess. The modern equivalent is probably your lunch buddy, but “messmate” is so much more evocative.
In a sentence: “My usual messmate’s not here – mind if I sit with you?”
5. To cavil
This is definitely a word we could use in modern English. “To cavil” means to make petty complaints or objections. Its use peaked in 1675, a time when coffee houses were becoming a fashionable place to spend time, and possibly to while away the hours cavilling about something or other. Nonetheless, it was in steady use until around 1840, when presumably everyone grew up and found themselves more serious things to grumble about. (Or maybe not.)
In a sentence: “He’ll come round to the idea in a moment; he’s just cavilling.”
Mrs Grundy was a minor character in a play called ‘Speed the Plough’ by Thomas Morton. She was a highly conventional, deeply judgmental, priggish woman, and her name passed into common usage to the extent that writers could refer to “Mrs Grundy” or even just to “a grundy” and have it be understood what sort of individual was meant. Though the play was written in 1798, “grundy” only became a commonplace term in the 1840s, and began to decline in the second half of the 20th century.
In a sentence: “Pay no attention to what a bunch of grundies like that say.”
This is a fun word for those following the current US presidential election. “Trumpery” is stuff – usually clothing, jewellery, decoration or ornaments – that looks fancy but isn’t worth anything. It’s never used positively, and has been dying out since around 1900. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, Prospero calls for Ariel to bring “the trumpery in my house” to use as bait to catch thieves. It’s also often used in religious texts to criticise those who prioritise trumpery over worthier pursuits.
In a sentence: “You’re not going to pay money for trumpery like that, are you?”
It’s a pity to see a word as specific as “scrumping” die out. It’s being used in print more than ever, but usually with an explanation, e.g. “scrumping, or stealing apples” – because “scrumping” on its own is not widely enough used to be understood. It means the theft of apples and possibly pears, but nothing else; you can’t scrump a car or an episode of Game of Thrones.
In a sentence: “David went scrumping, and then made a wonderful apple crumble.”
It would be a better world if there were more supererogation in it. “Supererogation” – or, even more unusually, “to supererogate” – is to do more work that is required of you; it’s the opposite of slacking off. “To supererogate” had a 10-year vogue in the 1660s (perhaps because of all the coffee), while supererogation peaked in 1840 and has been on the decline ever since.
In a sentence: “She doesn’t get paid extra for overtime; it’s pure supererogation.”
A mumpsimus is a mistake that someone keeps stubbornly making even after having been corrected, possibly because of adherence to tradition. It’s a word that was popular from around 1750 to 1850, though it was in use much earlier. It derives from the story of a monk who insisted on reciting the Eucharist as “quod in ōre mumpsimus” instead of “quod in ōre sumpsimus”, no matter how many times he was told.
In a sentence: “Matthew keeps saying ‘Lie-sest-er’ even though we’ve told him it’s pronounced ‘Lester’ – it’s a mumpsimus of his.”
Words we’ve gained
Appearing in print since 1997, but only in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since 2015, a “backronym” is an acronym created in reverse. This exchange from the TV show ‘Agents of SHIELD’ is a classic example of a backronym:
Hill: “What does SHIELD stand for, Agent Ward?”
Ward: “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.”
Hill: “And what does that mean to you?”
Ward: “That someone really wanted our initials to spell SHIELD.”
In a sentence: “I’d really like to call the karate club KICKING, but I can’t think of a good backronym.”
A good example of how niche new words can be, “choss” is a term used more-or-less exclusively by rock climbers, to mean loose rock that won’t support the weight of a climber. It’s a slang term that has been in use for a while, but it only made it into the OED in the last couple of years.
In a sentence: “Don’t go up that route, it’s all choss.”
A word that started to appear around 1995, kayfabe is traditionally the pretence in professional wrestling that staged fights, rivalries and storylines are all real rather than scripted. Wrestlers are expected to maintain kayfabe even outside the ring. But more recently the use of the word has been expanded to cover the same sense of agreed suspension of disbelief in other areas, such as politics.
In a sentence: “I know it looks convincing, but it’s all kayfabe.”
A dog whistle (no hyphen) is a whistle that is too high-pitched for humans to hear, but at a pitch that dogs can hear – enabling someone to call a dog without annoying people nearby. Its more recent sense, usually in the context of politics, is an implication targeted at a particular group that others will not understand. So if a stereotype exists that a particular group are lazy, suggesting that a member of that group is a late riser could be a dog-whistle to those prejudiced against that group.
In a sentence: “Her campaign was based on racist dog-whistles.”
Have you ever wandered through a British town or city and seen trees, statues, lampposts or railings that appear to have been given knitted jumpers? That’s yarnbombing: a type of street art that involves adding knitting to public places to make them friendlier and more personalised. It entered the OED last year.
In a sentence: “My knitting circle has been planning how we’re going to yarnbomb the bridge for weeks.”
Trade with China is becoming ever more important to the economies of English-speaking countries, so it makes sense that a term used by Chinese businesspeople has made its way into the English language. “Guanxi” is effectively high-powered networking; a system of interpersonal relationships that smooth the way for Chinese businesses to operate.
In a sentence: “I need to get the right guanxi if I’m going to close this deal.”
Our understanding of gender has broadened in the 21st century, and we’ve had to develop a vocabulary to go with it. The word “cisgender” was coined to provide a functional opposite to transgender, and it is from this that “cissexism” derives. It’s essentially the assumption that everyone is cisgender, whether from lack of knowledge or from prejudice, such as not understanding why anyone might – for instance – want to change the gender on their driving licence.
In a sentence: “It was a really cissexist thing to say, but he’s apologised since.”
The word “truther” dates from after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and initially referred to people who don’t believe that the attacks were planned by terrorists at all, but were instead orchestrated by a some manner of shadowy group, whether that’s parts of the US government or the Illuminati or both. Since then, the word has expanded to cover a wider variety of conspiracy theorists.
In a sentence: “Luke has some very odd opinions – the other day he was starting to sound like a truther.”
This is a word that enjoyed a brief vogue in the late 1940s, then declined, and started to take off again from the 1960 onwards and hasn’t really stopped since. It’s a variant on “recycle”, only you make something that’s even better than the original product. Think of tables made out of painted timber pallets and you’ll be on the right track.
In a sentence: “I was thinking of upcycling those old cogs into candle holders.”
If you spend too much time on the internet, you might have come across the meme of a Shiba Inu dog looking dimwitted with a grammatically incorrect internal commentary. It’s not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is listed on dictionary.com, so it may only be a matter of time.
In a sentence: “Doge in article. So meme. Very words. Wow.”
Image credits: shiba inu; alphabet dice; sneakers; perseus; chihuahuas in a pram; coffee; trumpery; man on laptop; letters; wrestling fan; yarnbombed tree; toilet sign; upcycled plastic bottles.