Dictionary 2
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The most recent estimate of the number of words in the English language is 1,009,753 (as of May 24, 2011). At the current rate of increase, about 15 words are being added every day. This estimate is provided by the Global Language Monitor, a media analytics company in Austin, Texas, which “documents, analyzes and tracks trends in language the world over, with a particular emphasis upon Global English.” Their estimate of the total number of words in the English language is bounded by other estimates, including one published in Science based on an analysis of Google Books texts (the difference between the two was 0.0121%).

Recently, Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic published a nice little reflection based on his experience of finding a 1927 Webster’s Dictionary. Opening it to the listing entitled, “New Words,” he found a much less robust list of new entries for the time since the dictionary’s last edition in 1909. Some of the words introduced are now commonplace, including activist, airplane, rayon, nucleus, Yuan, windshield, and movie.

Madrigal focuses on one word that has since gone by the boards:

cosmocracy, n: a. A government including the whole world. b. The people of the world, esp. when regarded as the source of government.

To Madrigal, cosmocracy is a word that we may want to embrace again, especially the second definition, which seems especially pertinent in the Internet age.

Having a number of older dictionaries in my house, I wandered to the shelves to find that my early 20th-century New Century didn’t have a quick access point to neologisms, while a 1928 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (with a copyright on its main pages of 1918) presented a pathway via the section labeled “Addenda,” which includes listings like anti-aircraft, blimp, autotruck (an automobile truck), seaplane, pliotron, and moniker.  Some words are still in use, some are archaic or remain specialized jargon I’m not familiar with (let me know if you still utilize a pliotron, please).

Interestingly, the word “newsprint” is listed in this same addenda — “A kind of thin machine-finished paper made from mechanical wood pulp, with an admixture of chemical wood pulp, and used largely for newspapers; — called also print.”

We’re accustomed to words having inherent meaning, but there is another meaning they have, which emanates from how they are preserved. Captured in books and similarly fixed media, they gain a meaning bounded by time and human activity. While our online databases are useful and powerful, there is a permanence — a frozen moment in history — that print still captures better. Having these little enduring snapshots of a culture can be entertaining, informative, and humbling.

They may be only words, but fixed upon a page, they are more. They are traces of our history.

Happy Friday!

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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10 Thoughts on "Capturing Words — Revisiting the Echoes of History"

Many of the words you point out remind me of when I taught history of technology. History of science is well documented but technology not so much. So I had old encyclopedias going back to a (reproduction) first Britannica. It was fun to track the evolution of bridges or reinforced concrete.

Permanence and iteration are harder to come by in the digital age. Information is more fluid. There are benefits to that, but we also lose some nice little benefits, like leafing through an encyclopedia from the 1930s and finding a different world and a different lens.

My favorite example is evolution. In the 9th Britannica there was a short piece about a strange bloke named Darwin. In the 11th the evolution entry was written by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley.

Archiving digital content is unendingly difficult and expensive because of format and media changes.

To me, trying to understand word definitions from an older dictionary is akin to learning a foreign language from that language’s dictionary. You can’t get started because every word is defined by other words that you don’t know.

I see the same problem with looking up words from an older dictionary, and then assuming that because you know (with modern usage) what the words in the definition mean, you know what the word meant back then. It’s a big risk, particularly the older the dictionary is, since language is a living, constantly changing entity.

Yet, just as attenuating yourself to a foreign culture through language, revisiting a prior time and trying to untangle, compare, reflect on, and absorb a related but not wholly modern world can be intriguing and informative. It expands your mind.


After I read your post, I ran across a NYTimes article from a few days back discussing how much the Supreme Court is relying on dictionaries these day to define terms. The two takeaways I got: 1) they will often use a very old dictionary to discover “original intent” (guess who that is?), and 2) they’ve cited over 120 different dictionaries. Can you say “cherry picking”? Good, I knew you could.

NY Time Article

Compared to other Western languages, English was codified very late in history. A good summer read would include the 2005 book by Simon Winchester:

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

This post has two themes: (1) the evolution of language (another good book: The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, a fascinating book that does get into really geeky linguistic territory but in a very readable way), and (2) the value of saving those old print books.

Re: (2), I think one of the most fascinating recent developments comes from Brewster Kahle, Mr. Internet Archive. In the course of digitizing millions of books, he has realized that it would be a good idea not to throw out all the ones that have been donated. (The ones from libraries are returned to the libraries.) So he has set up a new venture, “The Physical Archive of the Internet Archive,” to preserve one copy of each of what is hoped to be ten million physical books. He has set up a warehouse in Richmond, CA, and developed a preservation infrastructure based on shipping containers that are engineered to keep the books at an optimum temperature and humidity (and presumably safeguard them from earthquakes). Now that is a guy really dedicated to _keeping_ stuff — digital or otherwise! There’s a good article about this in Library Journal’s current Academic Newswire.

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