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Using a simple trick, the online OED provides counts of new word entries from its earliest recorded years (1400 CE) to the present.

New Word Entries are defined to be the year a word first appeared in written form in English language books and publications, not the year its vernacular usage originated.

Breaking out the information by century shows, prior to the 20th, a punctuated linear trend in new word growth.

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The punctuation is an unexpected drop in the 18th century while the 20th and 21st century show precipitous declines in reported new words.

These declines are particularly marked after WWII.

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The puzzling thing is that the OED frequently reports new words in their online publications.

So, why the discrepancies in observed declines?

Is it simply a matter of a change in the online IT system?

*** Response to question closure ***

The question, itself, couldn't be more fact-based.

The moderators have assumed that the responses will be entirely opinion based. To me, this seems a big "if" as participants to this blog bring a wide range of expertise.

Iow, to me it seems possible that someone would have the knowledge needed to provide supporting 'facts and citations' with their response.

Here's a chart of new word counts by year.

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Here's a screen shot of the old online OED, circa 2020.

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Having obtained data from the latest release (2.18.24) of the online OED, here is a comparison of the original (2020) and latest information.

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While the latest data shows much higher counts in the early, post-WWII decades, the end years are the same as the original data.

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Extracting an answering to a 'why' question only from the graphs is difficult, knowing something about word 'creation' or first appearances will help but we can only conjecture as to the inner workings of a business, the OED, that attempts to record these.

There are two ways to look at the problem, one as an artifact of language all by itself, the other as an artifact of the recording of language. Of course there is interaction, but I will try to keep them separate.

From the outside, considering no written record, the change in introduction of new items in the lexicon is mostly a sociological process. Given a one-time snapshot of the lexicon in Jan 1066 of mostly West Germanic vocab plus some Scandinavian, there are multiple waves and some continuous trends that influence acceptance of new words:

  • the Norman invasion introducing a huge number of French words 1100-1300,
  • the printing press increasing literacy and the acceptance of Latinate neologisms
  • relatedly a general continuous process of academic and formal connections with Western Europe including the Rennaissance and later the Enlightenment
  • the colonial expansion from 1500-1900 and immigrants from those colonies
  • the scientific and industrial revolution of the 1800s bringing in many technical and medical neologisms
  • the continued scientific and industrial expansion from the 1900s

Even single events like the Norman invasion didn't create a one time jump in vocab introduction. Everything is continuous but with some steeper bumps than others.

Of course even if a language was entirely isolated there is the constant change in vocab (both introduction and loss) that happens as a matter of course in language history (metaphors become dead metaphors, nouns are used as verbs, etc).

There is the difficulty of knowing how much the above listed sociological situations add to the lexicon. So now I'll turn to the record of language, writing and dictionaries.

Dictionaries like the OED, those that use a written record of a word to show that it is indeed a word. If it ain't written down it ain't a word to them.

For English, there is really just not much written record to go on (most European languages have an impoverished record before the printing press because most long-lasting writing was done in Latin by monasterial staff (books don't get recopied unless they are important enough and that was mostly religious then). Many words in the lexicon just didn't have representation in the written record. The printing press changed that - it became so much easier to print more words, but also, those words being more permanent, be counted and listed in a reference.

So that is why the introduction of the printing press, while promoting reading (and recognition of rarer words) was also an artifact in just recording words that were already in use but more permanently (on paper) long enough to be checked by lexicographers.

Everyone says that the vocabulary in English is always growing rapidly - you know, the internet and stuff. And that seems in contradiction to the graph presented where the number of new words per decade seems to be dropping off rapidly recently.

Most dictionaries have a lexicographical editorial policy of having a possible addition to the lexicon appear a reasonable number of times over a period of time (so as not to be considered slang that will quickly disappear). I think for the OED it is 10 years. So in some sense, even if some huge event occurs bring in new words tomorrow, there will -always- be a lag time where the new entries are almost negligible for a few years. This may be in a sense all the explanation that you're looking for.

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    Thank you for this speculatively thoughtful response. You've packed in a lot of information. Imo, you're proposing a kind of Gompertz curve to the growth of the English language...slow at first, then growing exponentially. One data point contradicts that supposition: the 18th c. What happened during the Rococo? Then, beginning in the 20th c, if one believes the graphs, the English language went into a creative tailspin. Is this an artifact of an OED tech policy or a reflection of decadence and decline in Western Civ? How do your suppositions inform that?
    – user97231
    Commented Mar 8 at 0:09
  • @DJohnson 1) Yes, very speculative. I'm sure there's some set of linguists somewhere that have done the needful and researched multiple languages to find repeatable patterns. .
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 8 at 3:05
  • .2) Exponential? No not at all, neither would I expect that but also not at all born out by your graphs. For French invasion id expect a huge bonus of new words, maybe exchange ~40% by 1300, then a continuous 20% additional for printing and then extra 10% each for industrial and scientific revolutionsAt some point we have to talk about words recognizable by someone educated vs words used by average (literate but not educated beyond that).
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 8 at 3:07
  • 3) I think 'decadence' is a bit too tendentious - I wouldn't be surprised if there were a coding theory explanation that even with exponential technological expansion, there'd be an asymptotic ceiling on a usable lexicon something something maximum entropy something
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 8 at 3:07
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    To your first point, one of the best cross-cultural language expositions is Ong's Orality and Literacy google.co.th/books/edition/Orality_and_Literacy/…
    – user97231
    Commented Mar 9 at 9:50

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