English nears a milestone: its millionth word

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jan 1 15:52:08 UTC 2009

Save the date: English nears a milestone
But a million words may not be all that excessive, the Monitor's
language columnist suggests.
By Ruth Walker
from the January 2, 2009 edition

Scarcely has the new year begun before the calendar pages start
filling up with lunch dates promised in Christmas cards and
notes-to-self about next time, seriously, getting an earlier start on
holiday gift shopping. But from The Economist comes a reminder of a
notable date of an altogether higher order. Is your stylus poised?
It's April 29, 2009 – plus or minus a few days. That is when the
English language is expected to acquire its millionth word. This
prediction comes from Global Language Monitor, an organization in
Austin, Texas, which uses proprietary software to track and analyze
trends in language. "Global English" is its particular focus.

A million words doesn't really seem excessive, given 1.35 billion
speakers of English on the planet. That works out to only one word for
every 1,350 speakers. But the decision about just what is "a word" is
not always absolutely clear cut. And just how do you count? Is dogs a
separate word from dog? The Economist exudes skepticism but can't
resist at least a brief celebration of the richness of English
vocabulary, from the Scottish Highlands to Australia to India.

Among the words to have come into English from India, the Economist
piece mentions shampoo. I might have guessed it had a French
background. (Champoux?) Actually, Champoux turns out to be a French
surname, and I've just wandered off to a French-Canadian genealogical
site that is ... not on topic. Where was I? Shampoo, from the Hindi
champo, was first recorded (1762) as a verb meaning to give a head
massage. A century later it referred to washing hair, and a few years
later, it referred to the soap with which one shampooed.

Hmm ... if English didn't have a word for it until basically the
mid-1800s, does that mean that perhaps the English-speaking peoples
did not have the thing itself? Short answer: yes.  The somewhat longer
answer: People used ordinary soap to wash hair in earlier times but
then had to deal with soapy residues, especially in places with hard
water. No wonder the new compounds that came in during the 1930s
seemed like progress.

In its references to Anglo-Indian vocabulary, The Economist makes
passing reference to a phrase that may be unfamiliar to some but is
worth knowing about: Hobson-Jobson. As Dictionary.com puts it, it's
"the alteration of a word or phrase borrowed from a foreign language
to accord more closely with the ... patterns of the borrowing
language, as in English hoosegow from Spanish juzgado." You hear a
foreign phrase and try to fit it into the language you know, in other

The phrase Hobson-Jobson goes back to 1634, to the early years of the
British presence in India, as a mangled Anglicization of what British
soldiers thought they were hearing during processions by Muslims
during Muharram, an important period of mourning. The soldiers
misheard "Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!" ("O Hassan! O Husain!"), a call of
mourning for two grandsons of the prophet Muhammad who died fighting
for the faith. "This," says the Online Etymology Dictionary, "led to
the linguists' law of Hobson-Jobson, describing the effort to bring a
new and strange word into harmony with the language." The authors of a
late 19th-century dictionary of Anglo-Indian vocabulary knew what they
were doing when they picked "Hobson-Jobson" as its title. And the
story behind the phrase gives a glimpse of how many layers of
understanding human language involves.


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