language change and slang

Back to black: what goes up can go down again


© Photodisc / Getty ImagesIn his book Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku predicts that computers will be built into so many of the things we use that they will “disappear into the fabric of our lives”. One consequence of this, he believes, is that the word computer itself will eventually die out. Though this seems unlikely, computer is already a significantly less frequent word than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Not surprisingly: we don’t usually need to refer to things that are just part of the background. If this trend continues, computer will have experienced an interesting trajectory in terms of its frequency: from being (in the 17th and 18th centuries) a rare word used to refer to a person (someone whose job involved accounting or calculations); to (between the 1930s and 1960s) a term used mainly by scientists and mathematicians (people like Alan Turing) for describing existing and proposed ‘calculating machines’ which could be programmed; to (in the last 50 years) a high-frequency word known and used by everyone; and finally (though not yet), back to the margins as a word whose usefulness has diminished.

Although it is a three-star ‘red word’ in the Macmillan Dictionary, computer did not appear in Michael West’s General Service List. Published in 1953, the GSL was one of the earliest attempts to identify the core vocabulary of English. It lists the 2000 most frequent English words, and – though compiled without the help of computers – it was based on detailed, manually-collected word-frequency data. The GSL has been an influential resource in the English Language Teaching world, and it forms the basis for the controlled ‘defining vocabularies’ used by most learner’s dictionaries (including the Macmillan Dictionary) as a way of ensuring that definitions are easy to understand.

Reflecting the period when it was compiled, the GSL not only misses computer, but also plastic and television – while including words such as porter, quart, and carriage. But despite cases like these, where GSL frequencies are strikingly different from those of today, the vast majority of West’s words would still feature in any 21st century list of our core vocabulary. The basic, high-frequency words of a language tend to be very stable, and as Stan pointed out in a recent post, it is in the area of technology that changes are most likely to be found. Stan mentioned the new meanings which swipe, tap, and gesture have acquired, thanks to our increasing use of the touch screens on our tablets and phones. We will have to keep an eye on words like these, in case their frequency markers need upgrading. But (as Michio Kaku predicts in the case of computer) what goes up can go back down. In our latest update, for example, the words fax (noun and verb) and video recorder have – for obvious reasons – lost their ‘red word’ status. This follows a similar downgrade for floppy disk, which was a one-star red word in the first (2002) edition of the Macmillan Dictionary, but is now ‘back to black’, and more of a historical curiosity.

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Michael Rundell

1 Comment

  • Incredible as it may seem now, when we were working on the 2nd edition of the Cobuild dictionary in the mid 90s, there were discussions about whether we should include an entry for ‘Internet’. I can still remember my first introduction to a browser (I think it was Mosaic) at about the same time. Fortunately we made the right call with Internet, but it is sobering to look back not very many years and consider the incredible speed at which the world has changed.

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