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"Frieday" Fact: Number of Words in the English Language

December 11, 2010

Today I digress. Yesterday in the office we were bantering around the word "bourgeois". I had to admit I really didn't know the precise definition. There was some shock and awe expressed. I retorted, "Do you know how many words there are in the English language? It's a lot to keep track of, which is why we have dictionaries. Feel free to use them." Look up the word I did. (I'm aware the above word is actually French. Sarcasm intended.)
  • bour·geois1 [boor-zhwah, boor-zhwah; Fr. boor-zhwa] Show IPA noun, plural -geois, adjective –noun 1. a member of the middle class. 2. a person whose political, economic, and social opinions are believed to be determined mainly by concern for property values and conventional respectability. 3. a shopkeeper or merchant.
  • I also didn't really know how many words there are in the English language. (I didn't really know a lot yesterday.) Turns out I'm in good company. Nobody seems to know but it is indeed a lot. Get a load of this nugget from Wikipedia: The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2) includes over 600,000 definitions, following a rather inclusive policy: It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang (Supplement to the OED, 1933).[79] The editors of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (475,000 main headwords) in their preface, estimate the number to be much higher. It is estimated that about 25,000 words are added to the language each year.[80] So to distill it down: at least 1/2 million words, growing at a rate of 25K a year. It is indeed a lot to keep track of. And I'm even disregarding such terms as "frienemy" and other fluffed up terms that have been recently added. FYI, while the English language has no governing body that keeps official track of official words other languages like Spanish and French have such bodies. Comparatively there's about 1/2 as many words in the Spanish language which could mean a couple of things: the governing body is more rigorous or restrictive and/or English speakers are more verboise. My guess is it's probably both.


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