How did "Skirr" become obsolete?
Collins dictionary asks public to rescue endangered words
By Iain Hollingshead
Old words die hard at Collins dictionary. As we reported this morning, the introduction of 2,000 new words into the new edition has put some of the older ones under threat. Reluctant to let them die out altogether, the nitid wordsmiths at Collins have drawn up a list of 24 near-extinct words (including “nitid”, which means bright or glistening), some of which can be saved if they receive sufficient public support.
Inevitably, celebrities have been recruited to adopt their own endangered words as if they were cute marsupials or fashionable political causes. Stephen Fry, who knows far too many words already, has plumped for “fusby”, which means short, stout or squat (or possibly, all three). The Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has chosen “skirr”, the whirring sound made by the wings of birds in flight, no doubt in order to liven up his tedious job next time he is called upon to write about the shooting season at Balmoral.
Good for them, I say. Fusby and skirr are both great words. Skirr has an onomatopoeic (is that a word?) quality. Fusby does the work of three of its rivals. Neither has a direct synonym.
However, I’m not so convinced by some of the other words on the endangered list. English has far too many words already (two or three times as many as French and German) without trying to resurrect dead ones which will never catch on again.
“Please devote your astergent (cleansing) attentions to the recrement (waste matter) in the bathroom,” is not a sentence I can imagine tripping easily off the tongue in conversations with my flatmates. It does not help that astergent sounds too similar to detergent and recrement to excrement. Do we really want to have as many words for toiletry matters as the Eskimos have for snow?
Similarly, how necessary is “agrestic” when rural will do just as well, “vaticinate” instead of prophesy or “fatidical” instead of prophetic (or indeed, presumably, vaticinatable)?
Scanning down the list, “periapt” doesn’t actually sound very combative, we have more than enough slang words for foul-smelling without rescuing “olid” and I’m not entirely sure if “malison” is a curse in the literal sense or something you’re meant to say when you stub your toe and don’t want to blaspheme. All of these words have a certain “caducity” (perishableness), including caducity and have died, I would suggest, for a good reason.
I am, however, a fan of griseous (streaked or mixed with grey) and muliebrity (the condition of being a woman). Although I have had personal experience of neither, they would both fill useful, economic voids in my vocabulary.
Yet they’re both pipped to the post for me by “embrangle” (to confuse or entangle), which also happens to be the favourite of the BBC presenter Adrian Chiles. If that can keep “credit crunch” out of the dictionary – especially when used as an adjective – I’ll never malison again.