Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Millionth Word

Linguists everywhere rejoiced yesterday at the announcement that the English language had just added its one-millionth word. You can read about it here.

You often hear speakers of other languages lament that English is taking over, that it's all you hear wherever you go. Well, that may be true in the US, it's Spanish that's taking over and is all you hear wherever you go.

But that's a discussion for another day.

One of the reasons English is so widely spoken and used is precisely because its vocabulary is so vast and offers so much richness of expression. The English language is like the English-speaking world used to be: open and welcoming to that which has something to contribute. We don't have an Academie Francaise trying desperately to plug the holes in the linguistic dike to keep nasty foreign words out ... we welcome them for the variety they bring to our expression.

English accepts words from all languages without discrimination: you do your algebra (Arabic) homework on the patio (Spanish), and may shout "Oy, vey!" (Yiddish) when the answers don't come out right. And while you're stuck on the patio with your algebra, your friends may experience schadenfreude (German) at your plight, even as they experience deja vu concerning their own homework.

A million words is a lot of words. Fortunately, most of us don't need to memorize or use all of them. What is the size of an average vocabulary? According to an unsourced (and therefore relatively suspect) article on WikiAnswers:

The vocabulary of a first-grader is about 1,000+ words;

The vocabulary of an average college graduate is 5,000 to 6,000+ words;

A university professor's vocabulary might contain 15,000+ words; and,

An average spelling bee winner may know 30,000 or more words.

There are, of course, a lot more words out there than most of us will ever use. For instance, you're not likely to use the word sphygmomanometer very often if you aren't a doctor or nurse, and you probably wouldn't use magnetohydrodynamics in a bar conversation unless you were trying to pick up a cute engineer. There are also a lot of words out there that are taboo, seldom used in polite company. I won't mention any of them here, of course, but you can probably name a few on your own.

According to the Global Language Monitor, the one-millionth English word (added to the language on June 10, 2009 at 10:22 AM, GMT) was web 2.0, which beat out jai ho, slumdog, and noob for the honor.

I'd have voted for noob just to be ornery, but no one asked me.

And now it's time to go to work and turn some of those million words into sentences in reports and studies. I can hardly wait.

Have a good day. Enrich your vocabulary. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

I definitely need to enrich the vocabulary I use. I think I know a decent amount of words but I notice that I use the same few in every day conversation. Need to start a new habit for Aaron's sake (and my own of course).

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I create new words every day, someone should tell Webster's that. We'd have far more than 1 million then :)

Gilahi said...

Ah, this brings to mind my chemistry days in school. The reagent that causes magnesium to precipitate out of solution is paranitrobenzeneazoresorcinol. We actually had to spell that on one of our chemistry tests. It is a completely useless piece of information (to me) that I will never, ever forget.

John said...

BTW, English is the official international language of air traffic control.

Mike said...

When in Prague most everyone spoke a bsic form of English. I started calling it 'get along' English. Every knew enough to converse but I wouldn't want to try any puns on them.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I thought there were already more than that!