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Words Born to Die
April 9, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Words Born to Die

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a marked increase in the death rate of words which likely correspond to low fitness, misspelled and (technologically) outdated words”, note the authors.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.”


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