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TWTS: To all the words we've used before... but don't anymore

During the pandemic, many of us have spent much of our time at home cleaning out closets, basements and garages, getting rid of things we no longer use or need.

Sometimes editors of dictionaries have to do the same thing. When new words are added, obsolete words get scrapped to make room.

We're talking about print dictionaries, of course: actual books with pages. Books that will keep getting bigger and heavier if cuts aren't made.

One word that didn't make the editors' cut is "aerodrome." This word was created around the beginning of the 20th century to refer to a balloon hangar or small airfield. It lasted about a hundred years before being removed from many dictionaries near the end of the 21st century, having been largely replaced by "airport."

Obsolescence isn't the only reason words get dropped. When "vitamin G" got the boot, it wasn't because we don't talk about vitamin G anymore; we just call it something else. Today "vitamin G" goes by its modern moniker, "riboflavin."

Words don't always leave quietly. When Merriam-Webster editors decided that "snollygoster" was no longer needed, there was a campaign to keep it, leading editors to restore it in 2017. It's no wonder: do you know of any other words that refer to a shrewd, unprincipled person and sound as awesome as "snollygoster?"

There is certainly an argument that there's no point to hanging on to words that don't get used anymore. Should a word like "hodad" get to take up space in print dictionaries? A word that got some use back in the 1960s but has since faded from memory? Maybe.

While you're not likely to encounter "hodad" in modern conversation, what if it turns up in a book that was written in the 1960s? What if there aren't enough context clues for you to figure out that a "hodad" is someone who hangs out at beaches, pretending to be a surfer?

This is where online dictionaries can be beneficial. Unlike print dictionaries, online dictionaries aren't in danger of growing too big and heavy to lug around. So even though you won't find "hodad" in a printed Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary, you will find it in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.

Incidentally, you'll also find "vitamin G," with a cross-reference to "riboflavin."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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