June 02, 2005

OED obsolete on "obsolete"

I just spotted a verb that was new to me in the current edition of Newsweek (May 30, 2005, p. 12), in an article about the upcoming mop-bot Scooba: `We are not just going to replace mopping, we are going to obsolete it,' says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. I thought at first that this was just another case of someone weirding a word (to paraphrase Calvin from the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip posted on my office door, which I could give the date of if I weren't 2000 miles away in Montana), but a check of both Google and the OED proves me wrong.

First, the Google research (or "research", whichever you prefer): 76,400 hits for obsolete it, but, as I expected, the vast majority of these have an adjective obsolete in clause-final position followed by clause-initial it, as in Once a product is obsolete, it is.... Of the first 100 Google entries here, only 6 had a verb obsolete. So I tried unambiguous words and phrases: 457 hits for obsolete them, 29,100 for obsoleting, 332,000 for obsoleted, and 518,000 for obsoletes. (Some items in the last set might be plural nominalized obsoletes rather than verbs, but the ones I checked were third-person singular verbs.) All these googled obsolete verbs show that I was at best slow to notice the verbal use of the word.

Next step, the OED (a.k.a. Oxford English Dictionary), which showed that I wasn't just slow to notice this, but several centuries late: the first OED example for obsolete as a transitive verb is from 1640. But the OED itself seems to be obsolete here. The electronic New Edition of the dictionary says this about the verb:

obsolete: trans. To render obsolete. Formerly (also): to consider obsolete; to discard as being out of date, to cease to produce or use (obs.).

The Google hits for obsolete as a verb include things like I'd say obsolete it and ...explained in terms of obsoleting what you know before others obsolete it..., in which (in the context) the verb clearly means `to discard as being out of date, to cease to produce or use'. So either the OED's claim that that meaning is obsolete is obsolete because the usage has recrudesced, or the OED was wrong all along because that sense of the verb vanished only from formal written prose, not from the spoken language.

But then, any dictionary is inevitably obsolete in spots, unless the language is long dead and known only from a closed and fully-analyzed corpus. It goes with the territory.

Posted by Sally Thomason at June 2, 2005 12:33 PM