The British publishers of the Collins dictionary have announced 24 words on their endangered species list. They’re words like “vilipend,” which means “to treat with contempt,” and “nitid,” that’s n-i-t-i-d, which means “glistening. ”

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The editors warn that if they don’t see evidence of these words being used in everyday speech and writing, they’ll drop them from the dictionary’s next edition. They’ve even set deadline for the doomed words: February 2009. But they’ve also offered the public a chance to weigh in, and vote for which words deserve a reprieve.

Sure, it’s a great publicity stunt. But I have to say that the thought of any word being voted off the lexical island makes me wince.

I understand, of course, that culling the herd is a necessary evil. First, there’s the economic reality of dictionary publishing–more words mean more pages, and more pages mean more costs per unit.

Still, I have to tell you I was aghast to realize that on the list was one of my favorite words ever. The word is caducity–c-a-d-u-c-i-t-y. Caducity. It means “perishability, transience.” More specifically, it can denote “the infirmities that accompany old age.”

Caducity comes from the Latin word “cadere,” which means “to fall.” The same root produced other falling words, like “cascade” and most likely, “cadaver,” literally, “one who has fallen.”

So what I love about this word is that tucked inside it” is a picture of falling away, like leaves in autumn. You might speak of “the caducity of fame” or the “caducity of nature.” Or you might say, “I worry about my parents’ growing caducity.”

There’s a wistful beauty about this word. And it’s not just poetic, it’s musical. Listen: caducity.

Contrary to what you might think, lexicographers say it’s incredibly hard to coin a word that sticks around long enough to wind up in the dictionary. Same goes for self-conscious efforts to revive words that have become obsolete.

But I’m convinced that “caducity” has hardly outlived its usefulness. So I’m asking you to join me: Adopt it as your own. Use it. Drop it into casual conversation. Put it into a poem. On a vanity license plate–I don’t care. Just use it.

Another thing lexicographers tell us is that just because a word isn’t in a dictionary, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So regardless of what the Collins editors decide in February, I’m going to hang on to this one.

Then again, if we all start using it, maybe we can save this lovely word from, well, caducity.

Check out the other words on Collins’ list here.

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11 Responses

  1. Bryan Irrera says:

    There’s one word on this list that I find really sticks out to me. It may not have been in use in PRINT for a while, but it certainly has been in use ON SCREEN recently. That word is agrestic. Agrestic has been used most prominently in the television show “Weeds” since it was the name of the suburban community that Nancy lived in (and where she sells marijuana).

    What’s fun about the use of this word is the ironic use, considering that its meaning is rural and uncouth, while the community on the show was upscale (though still quite uncouth behind closed doors).

  2. I wasn’t aware of that, Bryan. Thanks. This me think that “agrestic” has a better chance of sticking around in their print edition, especially since at the end of this Time magazine article, they note that perfumers also use this term regularly.

  3. P.S. Here’s hoping that someone produces another TV show about a civilization in decline, and the community where the main characters live is called “Cadu City.”

  4. marianapolack says:

    Caducity indeed!!!! (I figure, I can throw it out first) As I was reading the list of the words, I was surprised to see many of them. You see, some of them are of every day use in Spanish! Caducity (caducidad) is used to talk about expiration date; agrestic (agreste),to talk about a place in the country; nitid (nítido) which means sharp, well defined (or so I thought) and vaticinate (vaticinar), you read it all the time in the news about finances or even romances!!! Even griseous (grisáseo) is used to describe the sky in weather forecasts….
    The funny part for me is that being Spanish my first language, I realized I have been using this almost extinct words in English regularly!!!

    Oh, by the way, I did not know the other words bur I will definitively adopt the word COMPOSSIBLE (I cannot find it in Spanish) !!!! I find it both useful and attractive (which, by the way, are adjectives you cannot use together in many descriptions.

  5. Che, Mariana! No kidding? Would you use “caducidad” to casually describe, for example, the expiration date on yogurt?

    It IS interesting how many of these words have more commonly used cognates in Spanish, eh?

    Chocolate por la noticia! 🙂 (Seriously! I didn’t know that about some of the examples you mentioned.)

  6. marianapolack says:

    Che Marta!!! Absolutely!!! it would say “caduca el dia (and the date) ” .
    Do you think this is happening because English is getting rid of its latin roots?

    Caramelos por la respuesta!!!

    Caducity!! (y chaucito)


  7. dominique ducouret says:

    I heard your appeal regarding “caducity” – not much we can do about it from france -still you might be interested to know that we have
    caduc or caduque : meaning deciduous trees
    caducité : not used anymore (like caducity)
    caducée : the emblem of doctors – they get a parking pass with a “caducée” on it
    in case they need to park in a hurry (not likely to disappear any time soon)
    thanks for your great show
    the love of words knows no borders..

  8. MarcNaimark says:

    Dominique beat me to it. “Caduc” is used very often, not just for deciduous trees. In particular, contractual terms can be “caducs”. I remember it being particularly used when Yassir Arafat declared that the call for the destruction of Israel in the PLO charter was “caduc”. He did not propose changing the charter, but was sort of saying it “didn’t count” anymore. I’ve just seen that this is the very example given in the Wiktionnaire for “caduc”.

  9. daz says:

    The Collins list of endangered words — at least as it appears in the Sept. 22 article in The Telegraph — contains at least one misspelled word: FUBSY (*not* “fusby”).

  10. Dominique and Marc, thanks for that information. New to me!

    (It appears the French word for the doctors’ parking pass is from a different source, though — the “caduceus” symbol that probably gets its name from a Greek word for “herald.”) Anyway, I’m delighted to hear about these farflung relatives of “caducity.”

  11. Daz, you’re right. Something’s amiss, either in the term or the definition. My OED defines “fusby” as “A contemptuous designation applied to women.”