Vanishing Vocabulary

I am beginning this topic of vanishing vocabulary because, in nearly 7 decades of listening and reading words, I have seen many words change, or just leave the party with no farewell.  There is also the added excitement of joining the community up here in cyberspace and seeing constantly what I noticed, now and then, in my travels, the amazing differences in English around the world.

When I made a book trailer for the Sefuty Chronicles, at the end of last year and posted it on my blog, for readers to comment, I was astonished at how so many had misunderstood one word in the blurb for one of the books.  The confusion caused by this one word puzzled me, and set me on a very small quest to find out, if I could, whether it was a nationality thing or a generational one.

Of course I should not have been astonished.  For goodness sake, I am old enough to know language changes.  Indeed I have heard not only my parents but my grandparents stand on their soap boxes, declaiming the demise of the English tongue: have enjoyed heckling them as diehards.  ‘Latin is unchanging.’ I would say. ‘That is why it is called a dead language!; our glorious tongue-‘ I was much given to histrionics when young! – ‘is vibrantly alive, it changes like quicksilver; loosen up.’ I said.  So sure I was in there on the cutting edge of change – happy to leave fuddy duddy mustiness behind.

Well, of course, I am now their age and find my English changed beyond belief, (I am supposed to use tremendously here, instead of beyond belief, if I respect Microsoft spell check!) and I mostly revel in all the new words, the excitement of the new has never really left, but, some losses I do mourn, I posted on one the other day.  But this word, I had never expected. I should have done, the world it belongs to is fast vanishing and so the relevance to the young is also vanishing.  I need the word for it precise specificness.

I wrote. . .  love  and friendship founder.  Okay maybe not the best grammar around – hey it was a blurb!  Stumbled then was the word, as readers wondered what it meant in that context.

I looked it up to check. There are various meanings to the word FOUNDER

1) One meaning, the one, which most of my readers picked, was as the original builder of anything, therefore; an institution, a group, business, a family line – the person who establishes

2) Then there is a person who casts metals.  I haven’t heard this meaning used much in everyday parlance, but was aware of it.

3)  Then to founder meaning to knock to the ground, cause to fall from such as fatigue or shock,

to cause a ship to fill with water and sink,

 a structure to collapse or give way,

 a plan, hope, relationship to come to grief

This last meaning of the word was commonplace as I was growing up.  In my youth ships did still founder, with depressing regularity, the Second World War where thousands had gone down had just finished, my grandmothers lived with us and their personal history was littered with shipwrecks, merchant seamen in every generation it seems!

The stories I grew up with, real or fiction, often had ships foundering, the poetry I learnt at school was full of wrecks and drowned seamen.  Founder was one of my words, as unchangeable as the rocks that caused it.  Actually, of course, even rocks vanish into sand in time!

In Jack’s Tale love and friendships were threatened by the sharp realities of war. The very core (the backbone of a ship) of relationships threatened to break asunder (is asunder still used I wonder?) to break apart (in case it isn’t:) under the strain.  I needed foundered.  I needed to rewrite the sentence.

It seems to be more of a generational problem; a higher proportion of readers and friends understood it from my generation than those younger.  Is founder going to be one of my vanishing words? I do hope not but. . .

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17 thoughts on “Vanishing Vocabulary

  1. Julie Glover says:

    Good heavens, when did “founder” become an unknown word? Of course I knew what you meant. It can be surprising to find yourself using a word you expect to be common knowledge and receive lots of quizzical expressions from your audience. Great post!

    • alberta says:

      I am finding it more and more as I grow older – puzzlement abounds – but as a lover of words and change and evolution i mustn’t complain too much:)

  2. Oh, and I will never surrender my favourite word, “asunder”, I just won’t. tee hee

  3. Great post. I too have encountered the phenomenon of changing language, much to my dismay. I have received several bad reviews claiming that my use of language is “stilted”, that I use too many terms of endearment, (it was a romance) and that I do not use enough contractions.
    As the young might say, gettin’ old sucks.

    • alberta says:

      Or as my friend-older than me- says ‘growing old isn’t for wimps’:) – I have to say I do like contractions but friend from forever/editor is always ticking me of for using old fashioned words!

  4. Nice post. I find this to be true when I talk to my little 5th grade students. Sometimes I think I’m speaking a foreign language to them.

    • alberta says:

      Why is it do you think? – I sometimes have the feeling that our knowledge of words is shrinking – is this an grumpy old woman view or is it true that we use fewer words now?

  5. Horses certainly founder, and I suspect those who’ve gone through a horse-crazy stage will recognize that meaning.

    • alberta says:

      Not having been on horse in 4 decades I never use it in that connection now, but all your comments show that all the meanings are still alive and kicking ,which does my heart good – we just need a metal worker to comment now and I’ll be such a happy bunny:)

  6. shanjeniah says:

    I’m nearing 43, and from the American Northeast. Founder and asunder are treasured words, to me.

    I could be a throwback, though. =)

  7. I’m with you, Alberta. I’m somewhat older than most of our ROWers, I think, but I adore language and mourn the loss of imagery that has grown up in the past decade or so.
    Also, I agree with Alex; I miss the sentence structure that allowed for nuance and tone. That said, I was told by a friend several years ago that I belonged in the 19th century; a few years later, one of my professors told me the same thing, but not with the same tone!

    • alberta says:

      :) – nothing wrong with the 19th century! – my frind from forever/editor complains that I use ‘redunant’ words – so does the software! but my friend says it’s because all my early reading material came from my grandparents era (I’m nearly 70!) and I spent too long in my alternative worlds (how can one spend too long there?)

  8. Ah, now, there: I shall have to use founder very soon, now. Thank you for this lovely post. I adore words and they only date if we let them: use them once, beautifully, with an audience, and they go viral once more. One only has to look as far as the old Thieves’ Cant to recognise how deeply attractive and alluring words remain, despite the passing of time.

    Thank you. Foundering: I always think of it as something a ship does. Off to investigate whether that most unfortunate ship which brought the Count to Whitby was ever said by Mr Stoker to founder…searchable Kindles are such a godsend…

    • alberta says:

      I am being most heartened at how many of you are on the side of ‘founder’ not a vanishing word after all it seems:) – I think I must run others past you all sometime. I can’t help on that particular ship – happy searching!

  9. What a coincidence, I have been meaning to write a post on this very same issue. It distresses me to see a launguge so beautiful as English broken down into short syllable words.

    It reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984 where they aim to reduce the dictionary to as few words as possible.
    The other thing that annoys me is the lack of flowing sentences. Just take a look at Dickens or even Dracula – which I am reading now – these words are filled with wonderfully crafted sentences and imagery that just doesn’t appear in modern literature. Sentences need to be short it would seem to meet the limitation of the modern concentration span.

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