Of course there was not a date in history when someone said “Right ho, we’re all going to start speaking English today…All of us, and yes, that means you too Alfred”; English has been evolving for hundreds, nay thousands of years.
Researchers at Reading University cite I, we, two and three as words that have been around for tens of thousands of years based on results their clever ‘word analysing’ computer spewed out (after several years of their own research as well!). Having focussed on word patterns and how long words stick around, they predict that squeeze, guts, stick and bad could soon join the legions of words that we have stopped using, in whose great numbers count fabulous words like: billingsgatry, succubus and galligaskin.
Whilst those words are currently on the endangered list, the computer can’t predict what may happen to the definitions of words in use today. Look at what happened to gay – for our grandparents it simply meant happy, it then meant homosexual, and more recently it was adopted by the ‘youf’ to describe something that is regarded as stupid by the speaker. So a word that once seemed to heading for the block was rescued, twice, by a simple bit of rebranding. Very Madonna-esque!
Google ‘oldest English word’ and there is a claim that cinnamon is the oldest word that is still in circulation, having been mentioned in the Old Testament; fart also makes an appearance (cover your noses!) courtesy of Wikipedia, and museumhoax’s members offer apple. Some lovely suggested it was ‘one of the 30,000 words that Shakespeare invented’, which seems a little unlikely because we understand several of the other words he used that would have come before the ones he invented (although fair play to the chap, he did a pretty good job!).
A few months ago the millionth new word (Web 2.0) was added to the dictionary. Some claim that, if you acknowledge all technical and jargon vocabulary as well, we passed the millionth yonks ago, whereas some say we’re ‘only’ at three-quarters of a million. Do you want to start counting? With new words being added every year (here’s 2008’s list) and several of those not being officially recognised is it really possible to put a number on it? ‘A lot’ could be a reasonable response. With most fluent speakers using between 20- and 40,000 and needing just a couple of thousand to ‘get by’ do we need all of these words? I’d have thought so!
To have such a fantastic plethora of words to chose from, and to use them in an infinitesimal number of ways is glorious. And yet there are still words we don’t have: feelings, explanations and ideas we still can’t describe because we don’t have the word for it – terroir for example; so we simply nick the word and adopt it as our own.
What word or usage would you add to the ever-growing, ever-changing English language? And which would you perfectly happily see drop into non-existence?