The Life and Death of Words
Words, like plants and animals, fight for survival and an international group of scientists studying English, Spanish and Hebrew believe that many — in general — are dying off.
Their killer? Editors.
Via Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death (PDF):
The modern era of publishing, which is characterized by more strict editing procedures at publishing houses, computerized word editing and automatic spell-checking technology, shows a drastic increase in the death rate of words. Using visual inspection we verify most changes to the vocabulary in the last 10–20 years are due to the extinction of misspelled words and nonsensical print errors, and to the decreased birth rate of new misspelled variations and genuinely new words.
The Guardian clarifies this a bit by killing off some difficult words of their own and getting straight to the point about how words live and how words die:
But it is not only “defective” words that die: sometimes words are driven to extinction by aggressive competitors. The word “Roentgenogram”, for example, deriving from the discoverer of the x-ray, William Röntgen, was widely used for several decades in the 20th century, but, challenged by “x-ray” and “radiogram”, has now fallen out of use entirely. X-ray had beaten off its synonyms by 1980, speculate the academics, owing to its “efficient short word length” and since the English language is generally used for scientific publication. “Each of the words is competing to be a monopoly on who gets to be the name,” [Joel] Tenenbaum told the American Physical Society.
The phrase “the great war”, meanwhile, used for a period to describe the first world war, fell out of use around 1939 when another war of equal proportions hit the world.
Takeaway: Language is a giant Darwinian battle for linguistic supremacy. Choose yours selectively.
Video: MIT’s Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel illustrate what we can learn from analyzing 500 billion words via Google Books and its related Ngram Viewer which gives us the ability to enter words and phrases into a search engine in order to view their frequency over time.