Mark Pagel, a professor at the University of Reading in southern England, thinks that if we could figure out time travel into the past, we might be able to exchange a few critical words with Stone Age people, and that we might actually understand each other.
He has found that in the last fifteen or twenty thousand years or so, some words – especially numerals and pronouns – have barely changed. The words I, We, Who, Two, Three, and Five seem to survive through multiple millenniums unaffected by time and place.
Others words, on the other hand, evolve rapidly. Pagel has produced a surprising list of words that probably will not be recognizable in less than ten centuries from now.
One disappearing word in “dirty.” This surprised me because “dirty” seems such a useful word with a very broad application. But that is just the problem. “Dirty” means so many different things that we often search for a different word to make it clear what we mean.
Instead of dirty, for instance, we might say unwashed, soiled, contaminated, muddy, foul-mouthed, poisonous, toxic, immoral, smelly, unfair, smutty, unclean, unhealthy, cloudy, filthy, grimy, foul, polluted, grubby, nasty, dishonest, fraudulent, illegal, crooked, unscrupulous, stained, mucky, corroded, or possibly even disorganized.
(I’m sure the list is not exhaustive, and if another possibility occurs to you, your additions in a comment below are most welcome.)
It seems a shame that a word so rich in content and innuendo is destined for extinction.