Language: Using Extinct Words?

15 March 2012


Viburnum x bodnatense 'Pink Dawn,' March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Viburnum x bodnatense 'Pink Dawn,' March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Cherry Blossoms, March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Cherry Blossoms, March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Cherry Blossoms, March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Cherry Blossoms, March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Cherry Blossoms, March 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

The first two images are viburnum, which is a showy early bloomer and often upstaged by cherry blossoms. The rest of the photographs are those crowd-pleasing cherry blossoms, which are definitive signals of this year’s early flowering. I did some experimenting with the lighting on the last five, and that gives each image its own palette. Please let me know which is your favorite photograph of Mother Mature’s preludes to Spring 2012.


In our digital culture and data spills the Web supports new language alongside the old. It can even do archaeological digs for the extinct. Does social media encourage usage of the old or new ways of stating the present?

Even Steve Martin is a Tweeter aficionado (SteveMartintoGo). Maybe Twitter is made for comedians. (“Brevity is the soul of wit” is one of Shakespeare’s classic legacies.) Can you paint a word as painterly with newly-shortened Tweets? Or do you succumb to refrain for refrain sake?

I began to wonder about words that are used but what they reference are extinct (dodo and dinosaur) or rarely heard (arithmetic) or never-to-be uttered words (whiteliver) or vanishing words (linsey-woolsey or bowler or furlong or aerogram or gramophone that are found in Micheal Quinion’s Gallimaufry). Of course, it makes so much sense for words to be tucked away; they’ve lost their place for a sundry of reasons or even one: We do not send aerograms. Really, then what is an e-mail but an air letter?

Truly, extinct words are described as archaic (itself old fashion), forgotten and lost. Just as we have endangered species lists, we have endangered word lists. I’m not referring to whole languages that are being rescued and revitalized (e.g., Hawaiian has made a comeback). I’m aiming at the small innocent descriptor or noun or verb that is being shoved into the trash bin.

This trend is especially evident in fashion, health, science, and technology. The popular culture could hardly keep up with the transition (remember transition radios) from analog to digital. Word lists burst through the vernacular as fast as we could spit out a sound or type a newbie (described in Urban Dictionary as someone or something that, well, is just new).

I had been thinking about the burial and excavation of words, when a friend used the phrase “goody two shoes” to describe her mother. And this friend is in her 40s. Some words stay alive, because a parent or relative shoots it through a conversation–a conversation tinted with the old but used in the present context. Goody (as in goody goody) is really a fun word. I can hear my grandchildren laughing now.

I read months ago about the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 were determined to round-up those interested in the preservation of words: a crowd sourcing to give a word the right to exist. Funny though, every time I try to access the the screen is blank, leading me to think that there isn’t a great following for the loss of a good word. It’s such a shame.

We seem to be drifting in a sea of culturally-implanted vocabulary, which, of course, is the history of language. It gives and takes what is needed in steps that are taken through human evolution and progress.

Still, I am saddened by the dismissal of some words that just seem right for the description. Sometimes I use them anyway.

Data collectors mine all sorts of statistics and with a few clicks in Google search, you can find lists of words sent to their resting place. Who can keep up with words created daily in Twitter feeds? Fortunately, the loss or knighting of a word is taken very seriously at least by lexicographers.

Questions arise: 1. When to ditch a word? 2. What is fair use? 3. When is a dinosaur a real dinosaur? 4. How long does an endangered word have before it vanishes?

Regardless, I am going to find uses for goody goody and watch heads roll. Oh, and I often use ice box (1839) for refrigerator, because it represents the history of this very twenty-first century technology that hails from 1918.

Note: As always I welcome any comment about this post or any part of my blog.

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12 Responses to Language: Using Extinct Words?

  1. In 20 years the texting/liking generation will have totally bastardized the English language.

    • Yes, it is a conundrum. Some are arguing that brevity can be an asset. To me it’s a scary thought: the foundation of our language being dismantled for cyberspace communication. Thanks for the comment, Sally

  2. I wish arithmetic weren’t so rarely heard—and carried out—in our schools! Huge numbers of young people can’t do arithmetic without a calculator.

  3. Gracie says:

    Beautiful photos, Sally. Love the second to the last photo…the white background makes the pink blossom pop that much more.

  4. igardendaily says:

    So BEAUTIFUL! As Always! I love the first and second shot and can’t decide which is my favorite. Are the pink cherry trees as in ‘Kwanzan’ already flowering where you live? I was thinking it was just the time for the early, white-flowring varieties to be in bloom…

    • I live in zone 7, and the variety is hardy. The tree is in a neighbor’s garden, and the blossoms are spritely. Flowers and trees are blooming weeks ahead of the usual schedule. After searching on the Web, my neighbor’s tree is another variety. Thanks for your comments and visiting, Sally

  5. Lois Farley Shuford says:

    This is a great post, Sally. A venture into anthro-linguistics!
    and the cherry blossoms are exquisite!

  6. My favourite is the first shot. I like the pink against the blue. How did you get a pure white background to the other shots?

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