I often think that words are like fashionable clothing. A new word gets started by someone, is adopted by others, sees some parody and stays in vogue for a long time. If the word is important enough and used enough, it has the honor of admission into popular culture, with a stunning awards ceremony and confetti streaming everywhere. After a while, the word goes out of fashion as fewer and fewer people use it. The unfortunate word is abandoned on the streets and left to fend for itself, gnawing sentence fragments in order to survive.
Some words, like Internet and blog, become classics. No matter how long they’re around, I predict that they probably won’t fade from common use.
In other cases, a word decides to go on a trip and travels to another country. I was on a trip through the United Kingdom and noticed the word “mental” was used quite a bit to describe someone behaving in a misguided way. Years later, the word got more popular in the U.S. (maybe it was the Harry Potter influence?) and now I hear it a lot more.
Certain words, to me, are hallmarks of a particular era. Each time I hear the word “awesome,” I immediately think of the 1980s. “Groovy,” to me, belongs to the 1960s and 1970s. However, I notice that “groovy” made a momentary comeback in the chorus of the Train video “Drive By”. Hi, groovy, nice to see you.
I often wonder: Who, exactly, decides when a word becomes obsolete? Does the suffering little word get summoned before a Supreme Court of Disuse, there to stand in fear and trembling, while its fate is discussed in front of a grammarian jury of its peers? Do linguists, writers and librarians plead its case? And if the word is judged obsolete, is it then imprisoned in a dictionary for the rest of its life with the menacing abbreviation “obs” occupying the jail cell next to it?
Depending upon which source you consult, there’s between 450,000 to 1 million words in this wonderful language we call English. I hate to see great words fall out of use, but I guess we can spare a few.