Think about some technology-inspired words in English. You know what it means to “Instagram” or “Google” something, right? How about scientific terms, such as CRSPR or COVID? All four of these examples show how new words can pop into common usage in this era of real time information exchange. Even if we wanted to estimate an accurate number of words in the English language today, we would have to add a few more words to the list in order to continue the discussion tomorrow.
So, how many words are in the English language right now? It’s impossible to give an accurate answer. There are new words being added everyday.
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In the March 2020 update blog for The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), their contributors explain, “Here at the coalface of lexicography, we OED editors often have to grapple with new words that we have no prior knowledge of whatsoever, sometimes in highly specialized fields such as law, philosophy, and synchronized swimming.” And, while they try to keep up with common usage, it goes without saying that there are more words in circulation in the United States than they can possibly track. To make things more complicated, English is the first language of many other populations around the world. (The OED added 29 Nigerian English words and phrases in their March 2020 update.) That said, we can count on there being more words in the English language than there are words defined in any one dictionary. As of March 2020, according to the “About Us” section of the website, OED provides “…the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world.” This number—600,000—includes obsolete words, common words, and jargon.
Next, let’s turn to a dictionary of slang terms to find some additional word classes. For instance, Urban Dictionary contains words such as “elbump,” a portmanteau of “elbow” and “bump,” and “folx,” an alternate spelling of the word “folks,” intended to express solidarity with marginalized groups. Both of these slang terms do not appear in the OED. So, these would need to be added to the total words in the OED in order to determine the approximate number of words in English. On the other hand, some slang terms included in Urban Dictionary also appear in traditional dictionaries. The slang definition for the word could be considered as a subentry or variant definition for a word that already appears in other dictionaries. So, you wouldn’t want to double count those. For clarification, I asked the team at Urban Dictionary to provide the exact number of terms and words that they define on their site. Charles, a member of their support staff, answered me, saying, “We do not have a specific count because there are hundreds or thousands of submissions everyday.”
How Many Words Does the Average Person Use?
Stuart Webb, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Western Ontario, determined that most native speakers know 15,000 to 20,000 word families, also known as lemmas or headwords. You can take a look at his book, How Vocabulary is Learned, here. According to BBC News, “If you learn only 800 of the most frequently-used lemmas in English, you’ll be able to understand 75% of the language as it is spoken in normal life.” So, even though we have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from (maybe even a million words), we don’t actually use them all. A native English speaker gets by with about 20,000 different word families. Someone who uses English as a second language might be able to make themselves understood by using only 800.
How Does This Compare to Other Languages?
According to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, the Oxford Latin Dictionary contains 40,000 headwords and 100,000 senses. Since Latin is a dead language, those numbers are unlikely to change. On the other hand, languages such as Dutch, German, and Chinese all have new words that enter into current use all the time. Because they’re all living languages, their vocabularies will grow, shift, change, and retire.
For that reason, as with English, it’s impossible to give a precise word count for any other living language.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.