The Waltz of Missing Words

Eponine Howarth

In France, every edition of the Petit Larousse dictionary removes around five hundred words. Put differently, since Le Petit Larousse’s first edition in 1906, nearly ten thousand words have been withdrawn. Sure, plenty of new words have been added instead through time. But, don’t you also wonder what happened to the words that fell into disuse?

As I understand it, the process is two-fold. In the first instance, people stop uttering the word. Then, once there’s a resounding absence of the term in our general everyday conversations, the word ceases overall employment in the written form. This seems true of the Académie Française, the French Academy’s recent removals: “poétereau”, a mediocre poet (as an insult); “larmoyeur”, someone that cries (from the verb “larmoyer” — “larme” being “a tear”); “amusoire”, a joke, a way to amuse, to distract (the French verb “amuser” being “to amuse”).

While this analysis holds some truth, it also seems full of holes. I am convinced that some words never even enter the oral realm. For example, I am not certain that the term “masticatoire”, a kind of medication that is chewed to excite the excretion of saliva, ever made it outside of the medical world. A doctor may have written it on a prescription, in the usual hieroglyphics that only the chemist would have been able to identify. The employee would then have found the “masticatoire” on the shelf and given it to the patient. Later that evening, at the dinner table, the patient would explain to his wife that he had been prescribed some “masticatoire”, to which she would reply “a what?”, and they’d move onto desert.

Languages are alive and evolve. However, individuals fail to grasp that our daily use of various expressions, while seeming banal and trite, actually constitute the tribunal of our idiom. Ordinary conversations are the very scaffolding that will determine the life and death of locutions. Lexicographers may then decide on the final execution of “friponneau”, which leaves the ranks of the dictionary creating space for the word “corona”.

In the novel Life: AUser’s Manual by Georges Perec, the sorting of words falls onto Albert Cinoc, employed by Larousse editions to "kill" words. He is an unhappy man because he has to eliminate words all his life, all the time. Once he reaches retirement, he prepares a dictionary of all the words which he killed, a work which pays homage to all these left out. In a way, we are all Albert Cinocs.

Naturally, the Petit Larousse dictionary is a photograph of the evolution of our society, constantly undergoing major renewal, gradually giving way to “computer scientists” or “web developers”. Still, who are these lexicographers, effectively the “hitmen” of our languages?

You will be shocked to learn that a small committee of about three or four people decides on around four hundred and fifty entries every edition. The very same committee also determines exits. It is the Academicians themselves who decide whether or not to keep a word in the dictionary. The latter sometimes conducts small field surveys. For example, on a word in the vocabulary of carpentry, they contact someone who had been a carpenter for over sixty years and has written a book on the vocabulary of carpentry. If the man in question has never encountered the particular word, the Academicians produce the death certificate. Yet, while the new words in the dictionary that are publicised, those that come out are much more discreet.
I sincerely hope that words never truly die, that they merely "fall asleep” and sometimes resuscitate. Read this text as an invitation to (re)discover words vowed to disappearance. The verdict of dictionnaires is not final: reuse them to revive them. If old toys in Toys Story deserve a second-chance, surely words do too.

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