Etymological Graveyard
June 22, 2010 8:47 PM   Subscribe

How can I find a comprehensive list of words that have been deleted from the dictionary?

I'm teaching a class and want to get my students thinking about dead words and why they became obsolete. Only problem is getting my hands on said words. I've tried googling for a list of words that have been deleted from the dictionary, but no luck. I tried calling Merriam Webster, but sadly I couldn't get a person on the line and "removed words" was not one of the numbered options.

Two semi-related questions, then. Is there any way to find a list of obsolete words? Am I just bad at googling? And/or - what are suggestions for famous old texts that would contain dead words that my kids could find (for example, Shakespeare)?
posted by shaun uh to Education (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to check out Forgotten English.
posted by Bromius at 8:59 PM on June 22, 2010

Results of googling for "obsolete English words".
posted by Orinda at 9:17 PM on June 22, 2010

Here's a 1910 Webster's which you could directly compare with a modern one. It seems like it might be tough to properly match up the same dictonary product from the same publisher, though... they vary quite a bit in coverage of the lexicon. Or, you could compare just about any dictionary to the modern OED and regard the words absent as having been removed.

Another approach that might work is to just find an "advanced" vocabulary list from some point in the past. A word that was already arcane and rarely used in 1950 is probably a good candidate to have been dropped from dictionaries at some point in the past sixty years.

Also interesting is examining the changing meaning of a particular word over the centuries. "Proof" is my favorite one that I've come across so far.
posted by XMLicious at 9:20 PM on June 22, 2010

Forgotten English would probably be a good source of information and fun for kids, since a lot of the words therein are sound rather absurd and tend to be used to define unusual objects, acts, characteristics, etc. I'd go for that.

I think you're appraoching this the wrong way - words are rarely if ever "deleted" from "the" dictionary. First of all, most dictionaries only have a fraction of all English words in them to begin with - rarely did these abridged versions ever include words privy to extinction. Hence, little or nothing to delete. Second, the Oxford English Dictionary - an expensive and expansive tome - attempts to include all English words in all their myriad definitions. I don't think it "deletes" anything, with the exception of edited versions (which would also include a lot of obscure words still in occasional use.) I sometimes place the OED on a table and start reading at random, which is a great way to learn about English. Even fifteen minutes of browsing will turn up many "dead" words. You could start there as well.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:27 PM on June 22, 2010

A few disclaimers:

There's really no such thing as THE dictionary. You seem to be imagining a single, authoritative, regularly updated list of current words in English. In fact, there are many dictionaries, old and new, of words in the English language. Each dictionary will have different sources and different thresholds not only for how current a word has to be in order to merit inclusion, but also for how authoritatively it must be sourced (in other words, how much evidence you need that the word was ever really in use, and not just a nonce word or joke). Dictionaries may also have different thresholds for what they consider "English" and which borrowed or dialectical words don't make the cut. There are so many borderline cases that I don't think you will ever find a truly "comprehensive" list of obsolete English words.

Many obscure and obsolete words might never have been included in any dictionary, and so could not have been "deleted from the dictionary." Moreover, obsolete words that appear in "famous old texts" like the works of Shakespeare are likely to be retained in modern dictionaries (with a note like "Obs." marking them obsolete) precisely because the "famous old texts" drive modern readers to look up unfamiliar words. Is any word in Hamlet or King Lear really "dead"?

The closest thing to a single authoritative dictionary of the English language is the Oxford English Dictionary, which your institution might subscribe to online or own in hard copy. It's a gold mine for teaching students about English etymology and how language changes over time. Each entry includes not only etymological notes and definitions, but also examples of the word being used in context at different times across the centuries.
posted by Orinda at 9:39 PM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

If your library has a subscription to the OED Online, you might be able to look up words with the "obsolete" tag - if you then filter the results by their source text (all OED definitions have examples of the word's typical usage in books, letters, what-have-you) you might be able to find works with lots of obsolete words in them, or just scan for an author or book you think your kids might enjoy. Least that'd be how I'd start.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:47 PM on June 22, 2010

For a more ghetto less paywalled version of that, Wikipedia's Wiktionary has an "Obsolete" category.
posted by XMLicious at 9:56 PM on June 22, 2010

I always found this to be fun.
posted by TheRaven at 12:33 AM on June 23, 2010

Orinda, it's not just obsolete words used in famous texts that are retained: "Because the OED is a historical dictionary, if a word becomes rare or obsolete, it is simply labelled as such rather than deleted. Anybody coming across the word when reading an old book will still be able to find out what it means by looking it up in the OED."  

So every word added to the OED is still there, and whilst none of its entries have been removed, some are conveniently flagged as obsolete.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 1:07 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask my friend Ian Brookes at Collins Dictionaries. It's the sort of thing they track, and Ian, being senior editor of Collins, and former senior editor of Chambers, takes a great interest in these things. His suggestions might be a little UK-centric.

All dictionaries except the OED have a defined page count, and I'd be very surprised if there were any collegiate-sized dictionaries that didn't use usage frequency as a metric in headword selection. Some words have a definite shelf-life; who uses perestroika these days?
posted by scruss at 4:49 AM on June 23, 2010

"what are suggestions for famous old texts that would contain dead words that my kids could find"

Any popular novel or encyclopaedia from fifty years ago will interest them - it will use words which have now changed their meanings (punk, gay) or words completely foreign to them - when I read Enid Blyton as a child in the 1980s I had no idea what junket or blancmange were.
posted by mippy at 5:41 AM on June 23, 2010

Merriam-Webster drops words from every new edition; they have to, to make room for the new ones. I'm sure this is true for all dictionaries except the OED. But those words are not dead or even necessarily obsolete, they're just not used enough (in the opinion of the lexicographers) to be worth including. Think of it as like libraries deaccessioning books that don't circulate so they have room for new ones.

In short, you're going at this wrong. There is no such thing as "a comprehensive list of words that have been deleted from the dictionary," and if there were it wouldn't be what you want. You need to focus on what you want them to think about and give them a list of words that will (hopefully) make them think about it.
posted by languagehat at 11:51 AM on June 23, 2010

JSB: Yep, when I said "modern dictionaries" I should have specified that I was talking about classroom / general reference types of dictionaries. The OED, a.k.a. the big dic, is indeed historical and as comprehensive as any English dictionary gets, which is why I recommend it for shaun uh's lesson, if shaun uh's class has access to it.
posted by Orinda at 2:03 PM on June 23, 2010

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