May 28, 2024
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No surprise, I enjoy words. I am amazed that, in the English language equipped with an alphabet of 26 letters, those letters can be combined to create hundreds of thousands of words. And that brings up an interesting topic.

If you have some time on your hands and are interested in doing just a very little bit of easy research (as in, internet search research), you’ll probably find the number of words in the English language variously estimated at being anywhere from a bit under 200,000 words to over one million.

I wasn’t surprised to find an incredibly wide range of estimates, but I was quite surprised to see in a few different articles an exact figure: 171,476 words. Not 171,475. Or 171,477.

Ah, but then that minor mystery was solved. In an article on the Word Counter website, Allison Dexter writes, “The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words).” Bingo! Citing the venerable OED is bringing in a pretty big gun. But Dexter wisely notes that those numbers do not include “slang and jargon” which significantly increase the total. Word-counters are wise to seek wiggle room.

Of course, any person or organization undertaking this subject will be quick to point out that new words or combinations of words are being created all of the time, and not just a few words start out in another language and make their way straight into English usage. They count, too. Fancy an enchilada? The fact that the language is able to change and grow is an amazing strength. It is also one of many good reasons that no one will ever be able to nail down a specific number of words in the language. I suppose, too, that a word-counter would need a rule about how many forms of a particular word should be counted as their own separate words. No wonder this counting task is well nigh impossible.

Now, Pet Peeve Alert! I do wish that folks would slow down a bit in the process of trying to turn every noun in the language into a verb. Just because it’s often easy to do doesn’t mean it should always be done. If you enjoy such discussion, do an internet search on “verbing.” The word is an interesting example of the very phenomenon it describes. In your search (and you might include “verbifying” or “verbification”) you’ll quickly find that folks who care about these things have some strong opinions. I can envision a fight breaking out over such in a bar frequented by English majors.

For my part, I’ve largely made peace with “contact” as a verb. Even “impact.” I only cringe slightly now when someone talks about “gifting” or “regifting” a gift. And I admit to chuckling when I recently read of someone describing an elderly person as “turtling” down the hall. No turtles were harmed in the verbing.

By the way, it’s never bothered me at all that we “salt” our eggs or “butter” our bread or “table” a motion. Those nouns have been so successfully “verbified” ages ago that we no longer even notice. (I’m embarrassed that I needed someone else to point out those examples.) We “google” things all of the time now, and the language remains healthy.

So, yes, I guess I can be magnanimous enough to make allowances for lots of word-morphing in moderation, in good taste (some nouns really do turn into monsters as verbs), and when it’s done to accomplish the desired effect in one’s wordsmithing.

If you choose to start counting English words, let me know if you plan to count “salt” as a noun and “salt” as a verb as one word or two. And, if you come up with a word total for the whole language, I’d like to know. In the meantime, I’m quite content with this statement from the Merriam-Webster website: “There is no exact count of the number of words in English.”

For my part, I’m a lot more worried about word quality than word quantity. And I close these rambling thoughts with words easy to count but filled with meaning and mystery the whole universe cannot contain: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1).

Curtis K. Shelburne

Muleshoe Journal Columnist


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