Dictionary ins and outs

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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It started with a broken cell phone and ended with a philosophical discussion about the evolution of the English language.

The world is in a constant state of flux, and our language jitterbugs, discos and macarenas right along with it. The dictionary adds new words each year. Take cell phone, for instance. That's a pretty new word as far as the dictionary goes. Technology has been the impetus for lots of modern vocabulary. Google. Blog. Software. Hardware. Facebook. iPod. Texting. The list goes on.

We invent new words all the time. The dictionary welcomes them into its family. I never gave it much thought.

Then my son broke his cell phone, and I realized the truth. If new words are added to the dictionary, it only stands to reason that old words - weak, withered, never-used words - get the boot.

When words fall from grace, they become obsolete, losing their spot in the dictionary to newer and brighter verbiage. Recent dictionary additions include: staycation (stay-at-home vacation), locavore (person who eats food that's grown locally), frenemy (someone who pretends to be a friend, but is really an enemy), manpurse (no definition needed) and anything beginning with a lowercase "i."

How do words become obsolete? Much like my old Walkman, leg warmers and coffee percolator, their popularity fades and they are no longer deemed worthy. When a word wears out and is not used, especially in published writing, it becomes what's known as a "lost" word. Is there anything sadder than that?

Because of the cell phone breakage, we discovered a potentially soon-to-be-lost word: repair. As in: You broke your cell phone. Can we repair it?

Wondering about repairing a cell phone should be a common line of thinking when one's cell phone requires repair. However, because repair is fading from our vocabulary, we don't consider it after our cell phone (or camera, computer, TV, fridge, DVD player, dishwasher, vacuum or fill-in-the-blank-here) breaks. We don't think about repair. We think about new.

Which is exactly why I am predicting that repair will be a lost word by the year 2030. Oh, sure, I've done my best to use it here, in published writing, all of seven times - so far. That's got to count for something. Have I managed to repair the damage to repair? Time will tell.

Other words become lost only to be replaced by similar terms. Egg bake became quiche somewhere back in the 1980's, right about the same time that station wagon morphed into minivan.

Some words stand the test of time by redefining themselves - literally. When I was a kid, describing someone as "green," meant they were envious, or had just eaten a bad meatball sandwich. Now, green has much more positive, environmental connotations. You didn't want to be green in the 1970's, but you do now.

We no longer use the term "used." Instead, we talk about "pre-owned" or "refurbished." Sounds better, doesn't it? I don't want a used minivan; just pre-owned.

Anytime the dictionary has to delete a word, it's a sad thing. I know I'm still mourning the loss of embrangle (to confuse) and fubsy (squat). They were good words. Still are, I guess. Good, albeit lost, words. Wonder what it would take to repair them?

Some dictionary changes are nothing but pitiful. Take the Oxford Junior Dictionary. It recently added the term BlackBerry - as in the popular cell phone. Guess what word it deemed lost and removed at the very same time? Blackberry - as in the fruit. It seems kids using the dictionary no longer have a need to know about blackberries as fruit. Is there anything sadder than that?

Not much, unless you consider a kid who breaks his cell phone less than a year after he got it. It was an accident, to be sure, but accidents cost money. Who's going to pay for that? Luckily, the term "save your money" isn't obsolete in my son's world. He had the cash for a new phone.

We went to the store, and I was still hoping for the possibility of repair. The cell phone expert took one look at the screen and deemed his cell phone "lost." Repair was out of the question and the only solution was a new phone. I guess the whole situation had me a bit embrangled. And, as it turns out, I didn't know fubsy.

Jill Pertler is a syndicated columnist and award-winning freelance writer working with graphic designer Nikki Willgohs to provide writing and design and other marketing services to businesses and individuals. You can check out their Web site at http://marketing-by-design.home.mchsi.com/, or e-mail Jill at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .