Millionth Word

The English Language is growing faster than you can learn it, you’ll be pleased to know. Just recently we were told that it had passed the one million mark (that’s one million separate lexical items, or, if you prefer, words). The current total, according to the Global Language Monitor, is 1,019,729.6.

But of course this is nonsense: it is impossible to count. Is Web 2.0, the supposed millionth word, in fact a word? What about inflections, or compounds, or variant meanings? And of course any database of actual usage (and these are many, and copious) will lag behind actual usage. Do we stop counting a word when it becomes obsolete (but is still present in the written record)? Do we count every technical and scientific item? Do we count fragments of slang (that 0.6 must come from somewhere).

A word is regarded a ‘word’ (for lexicographal purposes) when it is recorded in a corpus of actual usage (printed material, transcripts of spoken language) on at least 25,000 occasions, and there are, of course, algorithms which trawl through these vast databases ticking off instances. It is, no doubt, in part to publicize just such an algorithm that the red-herring of the millionth word was thrown to the press.

Be that as it may, there are still plenty of words. If you want to keep up, you’d better get busy.

Here is a report on the millionth word, from the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs programme – worth watching for Professor David Crystal’s assessment of the millionth-word story as ‘chicken droppings’.

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