Words Born to Die

by Translation Guy on April 9, 2012

It’s a jungle out there, that vocabulary list. Darwin deals the hand, and only the fittest words survive. For the unfit, it’s the way of the dodo,  feathery discards on  broken nest. Quel domage.

Beneath its bucolic surface, English vocabulary is tooth and claw, baby. Tooth and claw!

It took a couple of physicists to figure that out, using the Google Books N-Gram tool to understand how words survive in that cruel linguistic jungle. The N-gram tool provides access to every word in a collection of five million scanned books published from 1800 to 2008.

Alexander M Peterson at the Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies and his team were able to pick the winners in the war of all words against all.  “It’s an inherently competitive, evolutionary environment,” he says.

Even with the perfect storm of the stupid Internet content, there are only so  many places a word can fit into a text.  Some new, flashy word comes in, and a suddenly that dumpy old spinster is caught without a chair to sit in. Game over.

Oh, now and the, a word may get a temporary reprieve if it ends up in a spellchecker, but in general, “the modern print era shows a marked increase in the death rate of words which likely correspond to low fitness, misspelled and (technologically) outdated words”, note the authors. Evolution is a harsh mistress.

“Roentgenogram” is a perfect example. Everyone knows that Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923) won the Noble Prize  for discovering the X-ray, so what else would you call an X-ray image but a “roentgenogram”? That’s how it started. But the word was quickly challenged by X-ray and radiogram. It doesn’t take X-ray vision to figure out how this one ended–roentgenogram had to go.

The graphs shows how these three synonyms struggled over the same patch of linguistic turf for 80 years. , before roentgenogram finally bit the dust. The scientists conjecture that the main reason “Xray” has a higher freqency is due to the “fitness gain” from its efficient short word length and because “English has become the base language for scientific publications.”

The researchers found that new words tend to peak at around 40 years after introduction, about the time it takes to get the term into a dictionary and introduced to a couple of generations. They also saw big changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war. This shows that word correlations,  across time and between words, are influenced by “co-evolutionary social, technological, and political factors.”



  1. Not only did the dodo go, but so has the use of the word to describe someone who isn’t too bright. Honestly, when was the last time someone called another a dodo?

  2.  ”It’s an inherently competitive, evolutionary environment,” he says? Maybe we should have a hunger games for words and the weak get killed off.

  3. Lennox Termi says:

    My daughter has completely abandoned the book store. We used to go there almost weekly and look at books. Now all she does is download them. All of her friends have a kindle or other brand and they all read ebooks. If someone has something interesting for young people, ebook it!

    • Ken says:

      Old people, too. Lennox.

  4. Lev Butala says:

    Some words need to die. How many words do we need? Too many just creates more confusion and less understanding. Really, out of all the english words known, how many are actually used on a daily basis?

    • Ken says:

      I try to keep it at around 500. More than that is overkill.

  5. If it takes about 40 years for a new word to peak, then the word “groovy” should be peaking right about now. (unfortunately it only seems like I use it in my circle of friends).

  6. Looks like x-ray didn’t catch on until the 70’s. I need to start watching some of my period movies closer to see if they use the word “roentgenogram.” over x-ray.

  7. Till Dembitz says:

    I didn’t understand a thing on the Peterson link. Are you sure they didn’t just make this up? I think they should get the language shop broom and push that page right into the big born to die dust pan.

  8. L. Lassiter says:

    I can see the demise of a lot of technological words over time. Thinks change and so does the vocabulary that go along with it.

  9. 40 years seems like a long time to peak for a new word, but then again, the word has to cover a lot of ground to get out to all of the people. I would think that this will shorten over time since words can be around the world now instantly.

    • Ken says:

      Seems like words come and go faster than once every 40 years. What do those scientists know, anyway?

  10. L. Lassiter says:

    I can see the demise of a lot of technological words over time. Thinks change and so does the vocabulary to go with it.

    • Ken says:

      Things change too, but I agree with you that it’s the thought that count, Lassiter!

  11. Stinker says:

    I wonder what all of this texting gibberish is going to do to this.

    • Ken says:

      We’ll know in 40 years.

  12. I am thinking that words are heavily influenced by the younger generation more than the older ones. Expecially now with the internet.

    • Ken says:

      Who wants to talk to old people anyway?

  13. Lori Hayes says:

    So is there are correlation between the length of the word and the fitness of the word?

  14. Wade Harris says:

    Is that graph worldwide? I don’t think I ever hear of a roentgenogram and I am pushing 60. I thought it was always x-ray (x standing for unknown)

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