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Opening Arguments

Dying words

Ever feel like your head is so full of facts you have to get rid of one old one for every new one you learn? Dictionaries can be like that:

Angus Stevenson, the lexicographer who directs dictionary projects at Oxford, recently announced that the centenary edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary has expanded by 400 more or less current words but has had to dispense with about 200 others to make room for the newcomers. (The figures differ because a new design accommodates more than the old one.)

Forsooth! (a formerly robust word meaning "truly" that now lives in the shadows as an "archaic fragment for jocular use only.") Among the words let go this year are Eurocommunism, threequel, brabble and growlery. The writer asks if there shouldn't be a sort of "endangered words" list for words that are fading but are so useful they should be saved.

My first choice would be “pusillanimous.” It's the perfect adjective, in its restrained and slightly complicated way. It sounds a bit like what it means. It's usually defined as “timid” but its five syllables reach deep into the sources of timidity; it hints at depths of fear and censorious child-rearing.


Harl Delos
Tue, 09/13/2011 - 12:57pm

One of the functions of a dictionary is to define words that aren't obvious from context. When the movie "The Fugitive" introduced the word "hinky", the context explained itself.

It's not clear what "pusillanimous" means when Wizard of Oz says, "Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma."

Thuffering Thuccotash! What kind of desthpicable characters are these lexicographers, that they would eliminate pusillanimous from the dictionary?

Leo Morris
Tue, 09/13/2011 - 2:51pm

They are festering cesspools of screable ninnyhammers.