lunes, 18 de junio de 2012


As words die out, we're more in danger of losing 'decent', 'duty' and 'punctuation' than 'dirty', 'stick' and 'guts'

Fascinating stuff from the University of Reading, which has announced that our oldest words have been in existence for an awfully long time, yet that "50% of the words we use today would be unrecognisable to our ancestors living 2500 years ago".
Mark Pagel, who is perhaps tellingly a professor of evolutionary biology and not of linguistics, added that "if a time-traveller came to us, and told us he wanted to go back to that period, we could arm him with the appropriate phrase book, and hopefully keep him out of trouble".
This statement, though in a sense unfalsifiable, does beg a few questions, but let's not worry about them just now. The more interesting item in the story is that, thanks to the power of a hugely brainy and fast supercomputer called ThamesBlue, the boffins now think they can tell us which words are going to be dying out soon. It makes interesting reading. Apparently, soon to be of historical interest only are words such as "dirty", "stick", "guts", "wipe", "stab", "turn" and "push".
Now, I am afraid I have not had the time or opportunity to consult the complete OED, which can tell us almost exactly how long these words, and indeed many others, have been around, but this seems like a counter-intuitive list, to put it mildly. Never mind that the list looks suspiciously like one that might be offered by a (slightly depraved) competition setter, asking us to construct a story using those words. They all have the feel of words that not only have been around for a long while, but suggest that they are very useful at what they do.
Stabbing, for instance, does not look as though it is going out of fashion, and if you can find a better word to describe plunging a knife into someone than "stab" then I take my hat off to you. And as for describing what spills out of you when you are stabbed, "guts" has it over "intestines" any day of the week. My own theory is that ThamesBlue has actually become self-aware, and, possibly as a result of indignation at being given a stupid name with a capital letter in the middle of it, has allowed its thoughts to turn in a sinister and vengeful direction. This list is simply its stream of consciousness, or perhaps a subtle warning to its operators not to push their luck.
Anyway, we can see in front of us, without a computer, which words are disappearing. "Your", "great" and "tomorrow" have all gone; they are now "ur", "gr8", and "tomoz". (Actually, I rather like "tomoz".) But I simply can't see how "dirty" will go while there is still the need for a word to describe the notion of something being in some sense unclean. Are we, in the not-too-distant future, going to start seeing "I wish my wife was as sniblig as this van" as an amusing graffito traced on the back of a dusty Transit? I think not.
No, the words that are on the way out are ones that refer to concepts which are becoming increasingly outmoded, including "integrity", "selfishness", "duty", "punctuation", and "decent".