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How Many English Words Are There

...words, words, words...we got words...
started reading Words, Words, Words by David Crystal (Oxford University Press, 2006) and I was surprised by his statement that there is no definitive word count for the English language.
On a number of occasions I've read and heard that the English language has so many million words and the French language this many or Swedish a much smaller number. I took it that someone went to the trouble of counting the words and came up with a total, but it's not that easy.
Compare a British dictionary to an American dictionary and there are numerous differences—differences that extend beyond simple spelling variations. Words are included in one dictionary but not the other and vice-versa.
Then there is the issue of scientific words. Do you include all those Latin-derived mouthfuls used to name plants and animals?
Lawyers may use stare decisis and economists, ceterus paribus, but should they be counted as words, included in a dictionary, or should they be kept in textbooks?
What about words from four hundred years ago that are either archaic or have evolved in their spelling or meaning. When was the last time you read or heard Sirrah outside of Shakespeare?
Is it, as he questions, flower-pot or flower pot or flowerpot? Does it count as one word or two? What about three words? Flower, pot and flowerpot.
Plus the English language is seemingly everywhere in the world--both proper English, or near to it, and comical misuses such as seen with commercial signs in Japan. Do unintentional misuses count?
Should I mention slang?
It seems to me that a consensus could be reached to define word for the purposes of creating the set of words that make up the English language. With the definition in hand, the word count could begin.
A year from now, the English Lexicon Association of the Galaxy could announce the results to thousands of journalists as if at Canne: and the winner is three million, four hundred and sixty-five thousand, seven hundred and nineteen words. That's a lot of words.
But to what end?
A week later, the total increases by one because in South Africa a judge rules that the word wiggletax means tax evasion and sentences someone to six months in jail.
Now I hear it increased by another word and another.

At least it's not going to start a war.

Religion—freedom—vengeance—what you will,
A word's enough to raise mankind to kill.

From Lara by Lord Byron.

Posted 2007/03/08 at 01h09ET in Writing.


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