How Many Words in English?

By Maeve Maddox

In order to estimate the number of words in a language, one must first determine what a word is.

For example, is bug a word? Or is it several words? There’s bug “insect,” bug as in, “I drive a Bug,” bug as in “Don’t bug me,” bug as in “eyes that bug out,” and bug as in “Ain’t you the big bug?” Then, there are inflected forms: bugs, bugged, bugging, buggy (crawling with bugs), and debug.

One way to determine the number of words in English is to count the number of entries in a dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. Add to these about 9,500 derivative words that are included as subentries. According the OED blog, these numbers add up to about a quarter of a million distinct English words.

Another way to count words is with an algorithm. The Global Language Monitor (GLM) keeps a running total with something called a Predictive Quantities Indicator (PQI). The PQI runs analytics as a weighted index, measuring the frequency of words and phrases in print and electronic media, on the Internet, and in proprietary databases like Lexis-Nexis. When a word or phrase meets a minimum of 25,000 citations and certain geographical criteria, it is added to the total. On June 10, 2009, the total reached the million mark with Web 2.0. Since then, about 14,000 words have been added. According to the GLM, a new word is created every 98 minutes, or about 14.7 per day. Some of these words, however, are of questionable use to most speakers, for example, jai ho!, N00b, carbon neutral, greenwashing, chengguan, recessionists, and zombie banks.

Whether one estimates the number of words at 250,000 or a million, English leads all other languages in vocabulary size. For example, the number of words in French is estimated to be 100,000; German, 184,000; Chinese, about 86,000. Individual speakers, of course, get along just fine in the 10,000-50,000-word range.

In 1930, linguist Charles Ogden proposed a form of English that uses only 850 words and a few rules. George Orwell used it as a model for Newspeak. Ogden’s word list is still used for ESL instruction.

Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that as few as 1,000 words are enough to navigate daily life–if they’re the right words. Utility, not quantity, is what matters in vocabulary. My observations of the language used on Facebook for example, suggest that most people get along with very few words indeed, especially modifiers.

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5 Responses to “How Many Words in English?”

  • Wim

    Don’t forget the relatively small language “Dutch” that has
    quote
    The largest monolingual dictionary in the world, it contains over 430,000 entries for Dutch words from 1500 to 1921. The paper edition consists of 43 volumes

    unquote

    It is endless, because we can keep combining words

    Best regards,
    Wim

  • Bruce Parker

    Utility not quantity. It’s with that thought I take up the challenge. My home language is English, but that’s all I can lay claim to – not to quality, and it’s for this reason I subscribe.
    Perhaps some of the pain will go away, when faced with small increments of knowlege..
    Bruce

  • the

    I am sure that many of my elementary and high school friends hated our English classes for one reason or another. Perhaps the classes were boring or redundant or too difficult at times. And perhaps they figured they could get by on 1000 words. But I will not forget my 9th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Bar-Chama, and our vocabulary workbooks. I don’t remember the frequency with which she made us use those books, because our English classes consisted of more than just vocabulary lessons. But the books were filled with page after page of word lists; we had to look up each word and write the definition, then use the word in a sentence. There was no rhyme or reason to the contents of any given list; the words were not particularly related in any way or grouped for similar difficulty or popularity. IIRC, we had pop quizzes. A large chunk of my vocabulary now goes back to those books, and even if I don’t use those words on a daily–or yearly–basis, I recognize them and understand them in context when I see them. Thank you, Mrs. B, wherever you are 🙂

  • venqax

    @the: Excellent point. I agree that learning words and their meanings is a great gift, and one that usually goes unappreciated till later in life than high school. Personally, I think using a large but not overly pedantic vocabulary has benefited me more in my life than being a look-a-like for Cary Grant. OK, a lot more. I really do have a pretty good vocabulary 🙂

    I wouldn’t presume to give parenting advice to anyone but I am always passing on words to my son, e.g. Just the other day, I was reading an article somewhere (maybe on DWT?) that used the word chimera in its figurative sense. I popped it into an email and sent it to him with just a short note, something like., “this is a really good word to know.” Me being me, of course, I also stressed how it is properly pronounced. I don’t know if he already knew the word– he’s 19 and articulate– but I thought it can’t hurt. Who knows, maybe someday he’ll be in a position where knowing that word really pays off for him, sets him apart in beneficial way, etc. Just my little pat on my own back. LOL.

  • venqax

    Also @ Maeve: Very good topic for a post. I have wondered from time to time exactly how “a word” is operationalized (sorry, social science jargon) but never investigated the question. E.g, the French construction of ne pas bookending a verb for the negative. Ne isn’t a word by itself, so far as I know. Is pas? So is that 2 words, or one “compound” word, etc.? And that example, of course, is from a language closely related to English. From what little I know of some languages that are truly exotic from the English POV (like Chippewa) it’s even harder to compare apples to apples. And of course more mundane questions within English, like are walk, walks, walking and walked 4 words, or 4 forms of 1 word? Thanks.

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