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

Dennis Baron debaron at illinois.edu
Wed Jul 9 02:53:33 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

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  
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 68 minutes  
(neologism, a word, coined in France in the 1730s and borrowed by  
English in the 1770s, meaning ‘a new word’).

Payack’s words-per-minute assertion can’t be tested, 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.  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

Anyway, the odometer of English isn’t going to turn to one and six  
zeroes next year, because most experts think that Payack has seriously  
overestimated the size of English, partly because he includes 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 staycationbehind with the  
baggage “not wanted on the voyage,” and driving a stake through the  
heart of e-vampire.

Payack’s more conservative competitor, 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’swords 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 upstaycation in the on-line OED – staycation wasn’t  
there, despite its recent mention on the Daily Show,

if you're eagerly waiting for the millionth English word, imagine what  
it was like back in 1425 when people coined a new word every 7 hours  
and spent their time wondering whether they'd make it to 1426, not  
waiting for the 100,000th word to come along.

As always, you can read about it on the Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:

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