Inspired by a question about a rare, obsolete word psithurism.

What purpose in human language is served by having words, communicative acts, that are very unlikely to communicate anything due to the unlikelihood that the recipient will understand them? This does not include terms-of-art like "aglet," which are used by few people but very commonly, but words exactly like the above.

On the other end of things, not of external (usage), but internal (knowledge), what is the purpose of preserving such words in dictionaries?

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    The word (transparent to most Greeks and accessible to Greek speakers) was used at some time, thus motivating inclusion in dictionaries, which help the curious reader. Somebody, someplace, has to record them. It is true that proficiency in Greek has served English class snobbery for centuries, all the way to Boris J, but you must read Isaac Newton's Cambridge notes taken in decent Greek. – Cosmas Zachos Jun 5 '20 at 18:05

Whether or not a word or expression is "obscure" is a value judgment made by a speaker or hearer. Urbandictionary has vast numbers of obscure words, and the nightly news regularly uses many obscure constructions, where some speakers cannot easily reconstruct the original communicative intent. There are many reasons for using "obscure" language. One is that a speaker may consider the linguistic entity to be "ordinary", and is unaware that their interlocutor considers the entity to be "obscure" (or at least, doesn't know what it means). I assume that you know the meaning of "interlocutor", but I could be wrong – I don't know you from Adam (and I don't know if you know that expression).

If I knowingly use an obscure linguistic entity, that is, use a word knowing that the other guy ("interlocutor") doesn't know the word, then I might have in mind putting you in your place, but I might also have in mind educating you about some subject. The meaning that you seem to assign to "obscure" is obscure to me (since you exclude terms-of-art used in an "appropriate" context, whereas in my opinion, "aglet" is an obscure word, just like "godown" is). My guess (you can tell me whether you agree) is that it didn't occur to you that your use of "obscure" is obscure (from my perspective), so you were unintentionally obscure. The investigation could continue by asking whether it is reasonable to think that every person knows the meaning of psithurism, squalumose, aglet, godown, epagoge, obscure or crunk. (I'm also considering the possibility of some mixing of "obscure" and "obsolete", where "obs." in dictionaries abbreviates "obsolete").

Wun uv dhuh reezuns wee doant ruhform Inglish spelling to be more transparent is that it would make a millenium of literature completely inaccessible. Dictionaries include words like "psithurism" and other words that are probably very rarely used (once a year, ever, anywhere?) so that if you read a book that says "Psithurism of multitudinous leaves made ghostly music" you will have some idea what that means.


Use of such words (outside of terms of art in their appropriate context) clearly fails Grice's maxim of manner by failing to avoid obscurity of expression, suggesting they are an example of non-cooperative communication

In this case, I would suggest that they are, generally, an attempt to assert superiority by one speaker over another. More precise and obscure words suggest better education and deeper knowledge and so are generally prestigious, by using such words, the speaker tries to draw that prestige onto themself

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    Some uses of them certainly are. But some uses are normally communicative, because some people in some contexts have a use for extremely specific and ordinarily obscure jargon, and keep it in circulation. As long as some folks are using it, it'll have a use; that's guaranteed. When they stop using it, it stops existing as a word. It's just a jumble of letters in a dictionary with no living memory of its pronunciation or familiar use, no idioms or jokes or puns or old saws that need it. – jlawler Jun 5 '20 at 17:11
  • I specifically excluded terms of art in their appropriate context which appears to be what you're describing – Tristan Jun 8 '20 at 9:27
  • That's where obscure words come from, and where they stay, and -- when the appropriate context changes -- it's where they die. You can find their tombstones in dictionaries; that's what they're for. – jlawler Jun 8 '20 at 15:10

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