The Grammarphobia Blog

The million-word myth

Q: I’ve heard that English is about to hit a million words. Where does this number come from?

A: Nowhere. Or, rather, from no legitimate source. It’s a myth that the linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer debunks in a posting to the Language Log.

So, exactly how many words does English have? It’s impossible to say, since nobody knows exactly how to count them.

Do we count “run” as one word or two (a verb as well as a noun)? Is a “run” for dogs one word and a five-mile “run” for people another? Is “runs” another word (or two or three or whatever)? What about “runny”?

And should we count every obscure scientific and medical and mathematical and technical term? For instance, do we include “4,4′,5′-trimethyl-8-azapsoralen” (which I see described on a biomedical website as a “photoreactive and non-skin-phototoxic bifunctional bioisoster of psoralen”)?

For that matter, do we count all the spelled-out words for the zillion or so numbers we have?

The lexicographers on the Ask Oxford website estimate that we probably have a quarter to three-quarters of a million English words, not counting different forms of the same word, the most obscure techie terms, and so on.

That’s more than enough for me, a lot more than French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and so on.

Update: No, the English language did NOT reach a million words “on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 am GMT,” as the Global Language Monitor website alleges. It’s all nonsense!

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