>How Many Words Are In The English Language?


Uriah Heep, the subject of  Mr. Micawber’s bombastic denunciation.

There are over a million words, or lexemes, in the English language. Including scientific nomenclature, that figure could easily be doubled. Shakespeare, master of classic literature, had a vocabulary of about 40,000 words. The average person knows about 10,000.

There are only going to be more, too. Is this a good thing? I like to think so. English is one of the few languages that absorbs words wherever it can get them. We can express whatever we want with our indisposable store of new words. They come into existence all the time, thanks to the Internet, although they also falling out of use just as fast.

Google’s word cache project, the Ngram viewer, allows you to track the usage of any word over the past five hundred years, according to about 15% (and growing) of the world’s literature.

I’ll leave you with a quote from David Copperfield, which may influence your ideas about whether or not it is a good thing that English has such a broad lexicon:

“We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important; and sounds well…And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.”-754

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.

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