Dictionary Gone, Dictionary Still to Come

The changing nature of English vocabulary has been neatly summed up by two recent stories from opposing ends of the linguistic spectrum. Both give us an insight of how our dictionaries might look over the next few years, but reached their conclusions in contrasting fashions.

The first was research by Disney’s Club Penguin into the language used by teenagers online. The result, unsurprisingly, is that for the most part, their parents don’t understand it. So Disney has published a Digital Dictionary as part of its overall online safety campaign as a way of helping parents to understand what their offspring are actually talking about.

So no longer will words like Keed, Dub and Derp be mystifying, while parents will be able to understand that in this context, Sick is good and Jelly is bad, and that is not just because of the after-effects of eating too much trifle.

The interesting thing for language watchers of course is whether the words in this specific dictionary have enough staying power to cross over into mainstream dictionaries, and whether this listing is just a passing fad that will fade into history, or is instead a tantalising glimpse of the OED in 50 years’ time.

And talking of 50 years, research by Lancaster University has given us an idea of how much language has changed over the last 50 years. They analysed millions of books, articles and speeches to come up with a list of the 2,500 most common words in the English language, and compared it with a list compiled half a century ago.

The results were not necessarily that surprising. Marriage, Religion and God are all on the decline, Sex and Celebrity are on the increase. Words such as Mobile, Internet and Computer are fairly obvious new arrivals.

The list of disappeared words really does capture the imagination and speak of a world now disappeared. Servant, Plough, Gaiety, Telegraph, Mill, Coal – all are redolent of times gone by. It is good to see Hunger going, but maybe the departure of Handshake points to a decline in manners.

So while the lexicographers of the future consider adding Yolo, Spinout and Noob to their pages in years to come, if they have to make space in printed editions, will Grammar, Comb and Bless be the things that make way? It is a sneak peek of the dictionary of tomorrow.

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