Query: How Many English Words?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Nov 18 15:08:01 UTC 1999

>There can be no answer other than a broad estimate.  How many words in the
>OED has no clear answer; how many entries in Webster's Third International
>still requires a definition.  Major headings or all the subentries?  I was
>told in Elementary school that the word 'run' has 700 meanings in English;
>if true, is 'run' one word or 700?  When words become obsolete, are they
>still words?  When a dictionary publisher states that 3,000 or 300,000 words
>are included, I take that number to mean 3,000 or 300,000 main entries?  And
>that bis not the question or is it?  Any dictionary publisher can include
>only a sample (high ever high a percentage that sample might represent) of
>the word population at a snapshot in time.  If we can define word as "main
>entry" in a dictionary and specify whether obsolete and dialectical forms
>are included, perhaps we could reach a consensus, but I doubt that we could
>or would.  There is no clear answer among linguists as to how many languages
>are spoken; obtaining unanimity on how many "words" are in a particular
>language is even more doubtful.  I look forward to comments.  Scott Catledge

Another issue is whether any dictionary would really help us answer this
question.  Even the least abridged ones do not last attested lexical items
formed by extremely productive processes. One from a recent New York Times
sports section, for example, is "Jordanless" (as in a description of a game
the Knicks lost to the Jordanless Bulls, i.e. the Chicago Bulls playing
without the retired Michael Jordan); another example that I use a lot in
class is "xeroxable"/"unxeroxable"/"unxeroxability", none of which will be
found listed (since they don't NEED to be), yet all of which are English
words.  Productive prefixes (ex-, anti-, pro-, re-) are another of unlisted
words (e.g. "to rexerox").  And that's not even getting into compounds.


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