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  • A million English words, or only 600,000? Either way, it's a language packed with more words than you'll ever need

    Paul Payack, professional word-counter and the founder of Global Language Monitor and yourdictionary.com, claims that someone coins an English word every 98 minutes, which seems pretty fast until we consider that during the word-coining frenzy of the 1590s, when the pace of life was slower, about 10,000 new words popped up every year.  If Shakespeare and his contemporaries never slept, that comes to a neologism every 52 minutes.  

    With more than 326 million native speakers of English today, and only 2 million in 1600, today's neologism-per-person rate is only a fraction of what it was 400 years ago.  Given our perception that the pace of life has increased dramatically since the Renaissance, this suggests that while there are in fact more words in English now than there used to be, we have a lot less time to coin them (neologism, a word, coined in France in the 1730s and borrowed by English in the 1770s, meaning ‘a new word’; Renaissance, a mid-19th century word meaning the European revival of arts and letters of the 14th - 16th centuries). 

    Payack’s words-per-minute assertion can’t be tested, because he uses a secret formula to count his words, but if he’s right, then in the time it took me to write this post, somewhere in the English-speaking world a new word was born, or two, if you count revisions. We know they’re out there.  We just don’t know what they are.

    Payack also predicts that some time around April 29, 2009 – mark your calendars – the one millionth English word will appear.  It’s not clear how he plans to tell the difference between that word and words 999,999 and 1,000,001 (he's also postponed the debut of word one million -- he once claimed that it would occur some time ago, but either English speakers haven't been inventive enough, or he's just milking the story to get attention).  In any case, if you’re planning to coin the millionth word, don’t quit your day job, because even if your word wins the millionth-word contest, no one’s going to show up at your door with a million-dollar check.

    Actually, the odometer of English isn’t going to turn to one and six zeroes next year, because most experts think that Payack is just out for publicity and has no real way of estimating the size of English.  One thing that he does to up his word count is include such oddities as staycation, ‘vacationing at home because gas is too expensive’ and e-vampire, ‘an electronic device that consumes excessive amounts of energy.’   

    Staycation and e-vampire are amusing products of the moment, and so far, that’s all they are.  People who don’t know what they mean aren’t bothering to look them up, and it’s likely that these words won’t be around very long, because even if energy costs remain high, people will still need to get away, and they’ll take their gas-guzzling iPhones and laptops with them, leaving staycation behind with the baggage “not wanted on the voyage,” and driving a stake through the heart of e-vampire.

    The Oxford English Dictionary records about 600,000 English words, not as well-rounded as a million, but a sizable sum nonetheless, and while most of the OED’s words are time-tested, it too records plenty of words that you will never need to know, like stayless, ‘ceaseless, ever-changing,’ or staxis, a ‘slight defluxion of any humour, as nasal hæmorrhage,’ apparently the 18th-century equivalent of a bloody nose.  I found these words while trying to look up staycation in the on-line OED – staycation wasn’t there, despite its recent mention on the Daily Show, and neither was John Hodgman's alternative, holistay. 

    The Noah Webster 4 cent stamp  

    Noah Webster, lexicographer, whose contributions to American English earned him a place on the 4¢ stamp, a sign of how much we value our language scholars.  YourDictionary.com may seriously overestimate the size of the English vocabulary, but it’s the only dictionary to recognize that the word Webster can mean, “any American dictionary of the English language.” 

    Curiously, while Payack's online YourDictionary.com is the only dictionary to define Webster, it has no entry for either staycation or holistay.  Nor does it record yola, a blend of yo and hola.

    A couple of years ago, I got an email from a man who wanted to become famous for coining yola, which he uses as a greeting.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first to think up yola.  While none of the yolas I found on the Urban Dictionary website seemed ready for prime time, all of them were coined well before my correspondent’s alleged invention of the term.

    The real issue, though, isn’t whether simply thinking up a word is enough to add it to the word hoard, or whether the English word count is closer to 600,000 than 1,000,000.  That’s because most people get by with a vocabulary of 40,000 – 80,000 words (depending how you determine exactly what a word is, something even linguists have trouble doing).   

    That sounds like George Carlin’s solution to the problem of the glass that some see as half full, others as half empty.  What the late comedian saw instead was a glass that was twice as big as it needed to be.  The real is issue with English is not how big it is compared to the competition, but that it has a lot more words than anyone is ever going to need. 

    a half-empty glass, or one half full? 

    A glass twice as big as it needs to be: an homage to George Carlin, but is it also a symbol of the English vocabulary?

    The vocabulary of English dwarfs other languages, giving us lots of synonyms to choose from every time we want to say something.  Choice is good, but too much choice can make picking the right word as frustrating as choosing the right pasta sauce: in the end, how many people can really taste the difference between the three-cheese, four-cheese and five-cheese? how many understand the fine nuances that distinguish the hearty, zesty, chunky, Mediterranean, continental, classic, and home-style?    

    Too many words also means that lots of words wind up never getting chosen.  New words are easy to count because they’re easy to notice – “What a cool word,” we muse half out loud, adding slyly, “You’re not from around here, are you?” 

    But how do we count the words that we have forgotten, the ones on clearance, or worse still, sitting on the shelf – or in the dictionary – until they’re well past their sell-by dates?  English may be stayless, ‘ever-changing,’ but it’s also full of words that haven’t seen action in centuries, like steadless, ‘having no place or position in space,’ used in 1425 and then abandoned. 

    The OED records 1,248 other English words first appearing in 1425 – an average of one new word every 7 hours.  These include keepers like accusation, donation, macaroon, peacemaker, and upset, as well as words that quickly fell by the wayside (c. 1400) like dissemblation, mortificative, peacockly, plet, stitling, and wontsomeness.  But then again, the pace of life was slower in 1425, and people were more concerned with making it to 1426 than finding the 100,000th English word.

#1
SamuelRiv@gmail.com Aug 6, 2008 8:49 pm

Surely you didn't mean to leave Ogden's Basic English out of the discussion? The IAL that Churchill touted as the English for the international community, that spurred sister projects for language education and textbooks across the continents, and that George Orwell satired with Newspeak in 1984?

For reference, Basic English was basically English, except it made a few simplifications and reduced the vocabulary set to... 800 (eight hundred) words! If you google Basic English, you'll find a number of satirical articles about how cumbersome that vocabulary can be (although the Chicago Sun-Times seems to get away with using such a reduced set).

Also of note is another artificial language project that sought to use a one-word, one-phoneme vocabulary, adopting much of the International Phonetic Alphabet to do it. That vocabulary set reduced to at most 200 words. The name escapes me right now, but it was an experiment in whether or not increasing the potential speed of speech by removing syllable constructions would increase speed of language itself (and by Sapir-Whorf, thought as well).

#2
lugwah@hotmail.com Sep 19, 2008 3:32 am

What a well-written blog. I will be sure to monitor it in the future (and of course report any suspicious activity to Homeland Security, so watch it, Buster Smile).

 

You are probably familiar with the nifty http://www.wordcount.org, which perports to rank the 86,800 most used English words. They do not say where or how these words are used. I would like to see word usage on the Web so ranked. Is it a simplification of spoken English? A tiny fraction of written English (no doubt)? Is there anything about this on the Web? I would like to see a list, even if it is not presented so niftily as Wordcount.

 

If you play with Wordcount, sooner or later, after staring at that curve at the bottom, you start thinking, "I wonder how many words I could make do with?" You position the cursor at some place close to the beginning of the curve (wishing to think of yourself as efficient), but the words that pop up just after are ones that you know you use all the time, so that was wrong. Next you try further down the curve, but no, there are no words there either that remind you of W. F. Buckley, Jr. on a good day. Pretty soon you get waaaay down there and come to the conclusion, "Boy, I know a lot of words!" So, that surplus of English word choices you speak of surely must fall not only beyond 86,800, but perhaps even beyond 100K.

 

Wouldn't it be interesting to be able to select Wordcount's database and compare, say, the verbiage of Sunday sermons to rap music? Or astronaut utterings to Valley Girl text messages? Or Superbowl commercials to cereal box panels. However, I would settle for Written English | Spoken English | Web English. I'm not holding my breath, though.

 

(Please withhold E-mail address.)

 

 

#3
lugwah@hotmail.com Sep 19, 2008 3:36 am

That's purports, not perports.

#4
virtuallinguist@googlemail.com Oct 30, 2008 3:17 pm

Surely there are already more than a million words in English. I once read that there are well over a million named species of insect alone.

No-one will ever be able to say definitively how many words there are in English, because people's definition of a 'word' differs. Are 'organise' and 'organize' two words or one? Is 'vitae' a word? It never appears alone in English; it must be accompanied by another word, like 'curriculum' or 'aqua'. And are they English words anyway? Should you count foreign expressions used in English like 'au pair', 'sotto voce', 'ad infinitum' etc? Are 'eat, eats, eating, ate and eaten' five words, or just one? Do you count 'middle-aged' as a word, when you've presumably already counted 'middle' and 'aged'?

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