How many words are there in the English language?

There is no single sensible answer to this question. It is impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it is so hard to decide what counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning 'a kind of animal', and a verb meaning 'to follow persistently')? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (dogs plural noun, dogs present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since we might also find hot-dog or even hotdog?

It is also difficult to decide what counts as 'English'. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Youth slang? Computing jargon?

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.


Tags: alphabet, english, language, speaking, talking, vocabulary, writing

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Replies to This Discussion

On the topic of evolving lexicons, even Scrabble has trouble hanging onto an Official Word List for more than a couple of years. I used to say with confidence that there were 1526 legal 4-letter words in the OSPD3...that was superceded by the OWL and TWL and SOWPODS and now I no longer know all the 'fours' in Scrabble. One game, 4 or 5 dictionaries in the last 10 years.
Even though my vocabulary comprehension and retention is fairly good, I think, I suck at Scrabble. My 90-year-old grandmother kicks my ass every time.
Actually, good Scrabble players know all the two-, three-, and maybe four-letter words. The best Scrabble players know 99.5% of all the 2- thru 8- letter words and a big percentage of the 9s and 10s. :) I'm somewhere in between the good and great players.
Thanks for that. There are so many of these wonderful books. I think I will make a list on the homepage of books that come up in discusisons here.
I've always been fascinated by the etymology of words and the evolution of their meanings.

Take the French word bureau, for example:

- At first it meant a piece of bure (the fabric monks used to make their robes with)
- Then it meant a type of desk which top was covered with that piece of fabric.
- Then it meant the room that type of desk was in, typically a personal office.
- Then it meant the building that was designed to house several of these rooms.
- Then it meant the people who used to work in this building.
- And as if it wasn't enough, in English-speaking countries, it has evolded even further, to mean 'a government agency or public administration'.

The first usage has now faded into obsolescence, and today desks aren't covered with bure anymore, but it never fails to amaze me that we can refer to something as complex as a government agency using the same word that once was used for a mere bit of textile.
I, too, enjoy this kind of information, Jaume. It is neat to see how words evolve or take on new meaning to adapt to a changing world.

Take, for example, that your computer screen is called your desktop. It is neither a desk, nor a top, nor it is horizontal like an actual desktop, but the word choice seems appropriate, and we all understand what is meant by callling your computer screen your desktop.

Spam has also had an interesting evolution. A contraction of SPiced hAM, it once meant the canned meat. Then it meant unwanted junk mail, and from that noun we created the noun spammer and the verb spamming.


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