linguistics and lexicography Love English

Golly, matey – vocabulary change is massively awesome

Written by Stan Carey

The words we use reflect the times we live in, and trends in vocabulary highlight changes and preoccupations in society. We see this in the words and phrases submitted to the Open Dictionary: recent additions such as sanctuary city, refoulement, and extreme vetting point to humanitarian crises and their cultural and political fallout. Our Twitter account regularly links to such entries showing language as a sign of the times.

To look more broadly at these ripples in the collective lexicon, we can turn to big data in the form of language corpora. One of these, the Spoken British National Corpus, allows many kinds of linguistic research, such as studying how English vocabulary and regional dialects are shifting. The project was in the news recently with a story about ‘words we no longer use’. The headline exaggerates, but there are indeed words we use much less – or much more – than we did twenty years ago. The corpus data can illustrate how our lives have changed over the years.



The 15 words that have declined most in the current data compared to that from the 1990s are golly, matey, crossword, comb, ta-ra, Avon, permed, mucking, boxer, cassette, croquet, cobbler, draught, playschool, and whatshername. The words that have grown most in popularity are email, internet, Google, YouTube, website, Twitter, texted, iPhone, iPad, awesome, massively, yoga, laptop, twenty-four, and Facebook. The rise of awesome as ‘the most emotive word in today’s speech’ has come at the expense of marvellous, which has fallen from 155 to two uses per million words. (For the record, I use marvellous a lot more than awesome.)

When we compare the two lists, the biggest difference is the proportion of technology-related words. Eleven of the fifteen most-rising words refer to the internet or to portable devices that feature it. Of the fifteen most-fading words, only cassette relates directly to technology – and to many people it may not even seem technological at first glance, so radical have been the advances in how we record and listen to music and other sounds. The digital revolution starkly divides the two sets of words.

Though objects like cassettes have not changed essentially, how we think about them has – and this must be reflected in how they’re defined. Thus Macmillan Dictionary, in its entry for cassette, mentions that it was ‘used in the past’. Similarly, the entry for video cassette says it has ‘mostly been replaced by digital media’. Part of the meaning of such words, Michael Rundell wrote in a report on the dictionary’s updates, ‘is the fact that it’s an older technology which has now been superseded’.

As an online resource, Macmillan Dictionary does not need to delete entries to make room for new ones, as was the case with print. Obsolete words are not included, but words just past their prime can and should be retained, because they’re still sometimes used. It’s comforting to think that despite mixtapes being a dying art, dictionaries allow room for nostalgia.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

3 Comments

  • Interesting post, Stan. Another intriguing case is the decline in the use of the verb “fetch”. In the original British National Corpus (1992), fetch occurs almost 16 times per million words, but in our most recent corpus (2013) its frequency is down to 5.8 per million. (And I read somewhere that a similar trend is observable in the new BNC you refer to here.) Just out of interest I checked our corpus of Jane Austen’s novels (which reflect the English of 200 years ago), and found that fetch occurs 45 times in a corpus of well under 1 million words – giving a frequency of around 50 occurrences per million! A marked decline in use, then, but I wonder if anyone out there can explain this? (For the record, it’s not a word I ever use myself, but plenty of people do.)

  • in reply to Michael Rundell. Ms. Austen may have used the word fetch in the form of fetching or fetchingly, meaning attractive. I’d guess that usage is obsolete.
    A more recent factor could be that physically fetching things is less common in the age of email, downloads and online shopping.

  • That’s an interesting case, Michael. Timothy, I like your suggestions about why fetch has declined, though fetching ‘attractive’ is not yet obsolete: a browse on Google Books shows that it’s still in use (indeed, I use it occasionally myself). I wondered if Mean Girls would give the word a boost – even though it used it in a slang way with a different meaning – but evidently not.

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