The Lifespan of Words (three ways)

Getting ready for DH2017 this morning, I found myself curious about the lifespan of English words–when they come into the language and when they fall out. So I got all the earliest and latest attestation dates for all the words in OED3, and plotted them out. Here are three graphs (“visualizations,” if you like), all based on exactly the same data, that show slightly different things about the lifespan of words. Since I’m off to the conference very shortly, I’ll give all three here with minimal comment. For larger PNGs click on the image, or download the linked PDF for a detailed and scalable view.

    1. This graph shows the earliest and latest attestations, stacked from bottom to top in order of earliest to latest. Bearing in mind that about half of 2017 OED3 entries are actually 1989 OED2 entries, which are mostly 1884-1933 OED1 entries, we should consider 1800-1850 to be a fuzzy range for obsolescence today: words last-attested before then are probably now obsolete (and in fact the blurry boundary is fairly visible at around 1850). The slope of the graph represents the rate of new-word attestation: i.e. slow until 1400, then faster, with a bit of a slow down around 1700 (this is probably due to OED’s well-known deficit of 18thC quots, rather than a feature of the language). Thicker horizontal white breaks indicate periods during which new words didn’t last very long.
      [PDF]

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