Bring that obscure word back! I haven’t finished with it yet!

Edouard Manet's The Reader

Manet’s The Reader. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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?

Dictionaries and thesaurus

Many words are in here. Do they ever get out again? Image courtesy of jdurham, Morguefile.

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.

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38 Comments

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38 responses to “Bring that obscure word back! I haven’t finished with it yet!

  1. Great post as always. A few years back, a few friends and I tried to get one of our trendy friends to say “soy” when he liked something. Our theory was that he would pick up whatever word was trending. It didn’t quite work, but gave us some great laughs. Awesome post! πŸ˜‰

  2. jane Goeller

    I enjoyed this article. I, too, like to play with words and seek the source of the word or phrase. There is a story behind each one. It grieves me to see a word go away, but tickles me when it comes back as brand-new! Keep up the good work.

  3. I didn’t realize that ‘awesome’ wasn’t a cutting-edge phrase. I use it all the time. It’s very convenient for when you need an informal positive adjective and ‘cool’ isn’t quite strong enough.

  4. Great post, thanks. I really enjoyed it very much.

  5. Great post! My fiance and I were discussing the same subject two days ago; the inspiration was the word boffo. We heard it in a couple 1940s films and then in a 2007 documentary. We’re thinking about bringing it back although I doubt it would be more than a laugh. Oh, well. Congrats on the boffo writing!

    • Thank you very much. Love that word “boffo”. I think I first saw it in the Danny Kaye/Bing Crosby movie “White Christmas”, one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. I think it’s one of the headlines in a newspaper, after they start their post-war act.

  6. We used “mental” quite a bit in New Jersey in the 70s and 80s.

  7. We’ve got a few made-up words that are used, to my knowledge, only by family members. I wonder if they will ever make it outside of our little circle?

    And the ‘mental’, I think I hear that and ‘illiterate’ used to mean the same thing. Who knew the reading about the English language could be so fun! Thanks for another enjoyable post.

  8. Old words never die, they just fade away. At least, until the new William F. Buckley comes along and resuscitates them.

    What really irritates me are some of the new ones. My current #1 irritant is “webinar” (a cross between “web” and “seminar”). It’s just vulgar.

    Here’s an interesting exercise for a party game or such: Give everybody a thesaurus. The leader takes a short paragraph and goes through it in random order, saying each word. Everybody else (I guess this would work with two people) picks one of the synonyms and replaces the original word. When all the words have been replaced (except, of course, “a”, “an”, “the”, etc.), they read the reworded paragraph.

    A long time ago, I tried starting with one word, looking up its definition, then looking up that definition, and so on, until I either ran out of words or patience.

    Does anybody else have any words (new or old) that they’d rather see banished to the Appendix? (Other than the “naughty ones”.)

  9. Great post! It wasn’t too long ago that the word “post” referred to the things that hold up fences or one of the actions you use while riding a horse when it trots. It makes me feel rather sorry for the poor unused words that fall through the cracks between generations.

  10. Impybat

    Hey, I use “groovy” all the time! I also use the “rad” a lot, but that’s because a part of me is stuck in the 80s.

  11. I loved reading this post, you have a great knack for inserting humorous descriptives exactly where they ought to be. On another note, I completely agree – words coming in and out of the English language is definitely an interesting process to follow. I love coining my own terms in scholastic contribution and fiction/English are one of the few areas I can get away with it in! Great post!

  12. Two shows I watch have really great vocabularies: the old Batman and FX’s Justified. Both shows use words that may or may not have ever been in vogue, but are still awfully fun.

    • Holy musings, Batman! I’m going to have to check out Justified. I looked at some clips on the Internet Movie Database and it looks good.

      • It is. It can be a bit dark, but the gallows humor is fantastic. And the criminals are hilariously inept most of the time. I’ve met people who live/grew up in Kentucky that are like “Yeah. That show’s not as far off as you’d like it to be.” One of the main bad guys, Boyt Crowder, has some of the best lines next to Raylan.

      • I really liked the season finale clip with the line “I don’t think you seeing the big picture ’round here, Marshal.” And then the Marshal looks around…classic “uh-oh” moment. Where has this show been all my life?

  13. What a fascinating post! I’m continually experimenting with obscure phrasing during conversation, ie: “be that, as it may,” and “Right on, brother!” Like some of the other commentators here, I see the cyclical nature of words. What’s out now may be in next decade. And old phrases resurrected may sound fresh to young ears. The only word I’ve run into PC trouble with is “gay,” in reference to my very cheerful iridescent pink snow pants. A lesbian friend took issue — and while I gently noted that no one owns the word, I will hesitate to use it again in my context related to its original meaning simply because I don’t seek to offend the sensitive. Finally, thanks for the smiles induced by the “Chips Ahoy” users — my sailboat is named Chip Ahoy, so it’s a daily part of my vocabulary. I also enjoy the greeting “Hoy Hoy,” a mariner’s hello also favored by Mr. Burns on The Simpsons.

  14. lectorconstans

    There was a radio show (I last heard it on PBS) — I think it originated in England — called “My Word”. It was modeled after a quiz show, with a panel of experts. The moderator would throw out a word (the more obscure, the better) and the panel would give their opinions as to the definition.

    The high point of the show was when two of the panel (professional writers/journalists/comedians) would take a word or phrase and make up an elaborate story about its origin. The winner was selected on the basis of audience applause.

    [time out for Web search…..] Here’s one link:

    My Word

    It ran on the BBC from 1956 to 1990. There’s a YouTube clip:

    My Word

    About 3 minutes — I didn’t listen to it all.

    • Thanks for the info. I watched the YouTube video — very cool! Definitely my kind of show. And another obscure word has now been added to my vocabulary list: “rumblegumption”. Love it!

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