Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Entropy – Podictionary Word of the Day

iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast

I was once in a meeting at work where we were trying to manage a runaway engineering project.

The various players were discussing this or that aspect when one of the more senior guys—and one who was pretty discouraged about the prospects of ever getting control of the project—said “and how do you plan to manage entropy?”

That stopped the conversation for a while.

Entropy is the tendency of things to disorder.

In a moment this will bring me to the comments of John Simpson the Chief Editor of The Oxford English Dictionary but first I’ll give you the etymology of entropy.

A guy named Rudolf Clausius is generally credited with coming up with the second law of thermodynamics. He was German physicist and in 1856 he refined the thinking on how matter behaves as relates to heat and disorder down to a mathematical formula.

He also invented a word for it, entropy from Greek and meaning “in turning” the turning being interpreted as “transforming”—as to disorder.

I don’t know what John Simpson has to say about entropy, but he recently had something to say about H. G. Wells.

Simpson pulled two quotes from the 1914 novel The World Set Free in which H. G. Wells makes a few predictions about the development of the English language. Almost 100 years on we can see how those predictions fared.

The first is that our vocabulary would swell. Wells predicted that the OED would be bursting with a quarter of a million words defined. Moreover, with all these new words, a person with a vocabulary of 100 years ago would have a hard time reading a newspaper; there would be too many words in there they’d never seen before.

It turns out that the author who wrote of time machines, invisibility and utopia was too conservative in his estimation of English.

The OED entered 2010 under the weight of almost 2½ times Wells’ estimate of word count. That’s 597,291words.

But what has that to do with entropy?

Wells also got his general direction right in predicting that English would become increasingly an international language. But he forecast more rules and regulation would be imposed on English.

The English language is very democratic. Words and their use flourish not by official approval but by popular usage. More users, more words, more creative usage.

Not exactly entropy but it got me thinking.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *