How many words are there in the English language?

24 Aug

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is no single sensible answer to this question. It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language accurately, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g. dogs = plural noun,dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog?

It’s also difficult to decide what counts as ‘English’. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?

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. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don’t take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

Just for fun, here are fifty words that never quite caught on. Maybe you’ll find a good many useful (you probably won’t, but who knows?):

Abacinate: to blind someone using red-hot metal.

Chance of using: Extremely Low

Not likely to crop up in a conversation. Possibly handy if you write horror stories.

Algerining: sneaking around with the intent of committing a burglary.

Chance of using: Low

You could probably sneak the word into the conversation if you’re talking about somebody sneaking around with the intent of committing a burglary…

Autolatrist: one who worships themselves.

Chance of using: Medium

There’s a good chance you may know somebody like this…

Autotonsorialist: one who cuts their own hair.

Chance of using: Low

It really depends if you know anyone who does this. You could say that I’m an autotonsorialist, if shaving with hair clippers counts as cutting.

Batrachophagous: one who eats frogs.

Chance of using: Medium

Maybe if you’re in a country where they eat frogs…

Cruciverbalist: one who loves crossword puzzles (sometimes used to denote one who creates the puzzles).

Chance of using: High

Crossword puzzles are pretty popular.

Dactylion: the tip of the middle finger.

Chance of using: Low

You could sneak it into a conversation, especially if you were talking about my friend, who lost his dactylion when he slammed his car door without looking…

Eccedentesiast: one who fakes a smile, especially on T.V.

Chance of using: Medium

There’s a lot of it about, especially on T.V…

Fabiform: in the shape of a bean.

Chance of using: Medium

Kidneys, for example…

Filipendulous: held by a single thread.

Chance of using: Low

I’m sure there could be some uses for this one.

Gabelle: a tax on salt.

Chance of using: Low

Unless you’re a history buff talking about when this happened in France, from the 15th century until it was abolished in 1790…

Glossolalia: fluent nonsense.

Chance of using: Medium

Anybody with a toddler knows all about being fluent in nonsense, so, you know…

Gossypiboma: a sponge accidentally left inside one’s body during surgery.

Chance of using: Low

My great aunt Mabel had an operation once, and a sponge…

Just kidding.

Hemolysis: breaking open a red blood cell.

Chance of using: Very Low

Unless you’re a doctor with a thing against red blood cells…

Hieracosphinx: a sphinx with the head of a hawk.

Chance of using: Low

Good for fiction in that kind of genre though…

Interfenestration: the space between two windows.

Chance of using: Low

Most people would be more likely to say ‘the space between two windows’. Just saying…

Jentacular: having to do with breakfast.

Chance of using: Medium

Such as referring to a food as jentacular when you were saying it was for breakfast.

Jumentous: smelling similar to or like horse urine.

Chance of using: Low

Chances increase a bit if you work with horses. Useful as a subtle insult – ‘I think you’re jumentous’.

Kakorrhaphiophobia: fear of failure.

Chance of using: Medium

A lot of people are afraid of failing, especially if you ask them to spell kakorrhaphiophobia…

Knismesis: light tickling.

Chance of using: Low

Might be useful in the bedroom. Although, actually saying knismesis in the bedroom would probably kill the mood…

Kosmokrator: a theoretical ruler of the world.

Chance of using: High

Good word to use when you want to rule the world…

Kyphorrhinos: to have a nose with a bump in it.

Chance of using: Medium

There are some with such a nose.

Labrose: to have large lips.

Chance of using: Medium

Mick Jagger springs to mind…

Lythcoop: auction of the contents of a house.

Chance of using: Low

These days, ‘repossession’ would be a more apt term…

Mallemaroking: Drinking heavily on a Greenlandic whaling ship that’s stuck in ice.

Chance of using: On the Lowest side of Extremely Low

Ten out of ten if you’ve ever been able to use this word in a conversation. Oh to be on a whaling ship in icy seas off the coast of Greenland…

Mammothrept: a child that has been brought up but also spoiled by their grandmother.

Chance of using: Very Low

Spoilt little b*****. Just saying…

Mytacism: incorrect and too frequent usage of the letter “M.”

Chance of using: Very Low

Such abuse of the letter “M” is, thankfully, very rare. Support groups are available if needed…

Neanimorphic: looking younger than in actuality.

Chance of using: Medium

Good way to compliment and confuse someone simultaneously.

Necrotype: an extinct creature.

Chance of using: Medium

Nice alternative to simply saying something is extinct.

Nidorosity: tasting raw meat after burping.

Chance of using: Very Low

When was the last time this happened to you?

Preantepenultimate: fourth from last.

Chance of using: Low

Happily, ‘fourth from last’ is a very acceptable alternative…

Pyknic: being short and fat.

Chance of using: Low

Another handy subtle insult…

Qualtagh: the first person one sees after exiting ones house after a special occasion.

Chance of using: Very Low

Strangely enough, this isn’t the first word that springs to mind when I see somebody after leaving my house after a special occasion…

Quomodocunquize: one who tries to make money anyway possible.

Chance of using: Low

There’s a little bit of quomodocunquize in all of us…

Rabiator: a violent, greedy or ruthless person.

Chance of using: Medium

I had a boss like that once…

Rhaebosis: synonym for curvature.

Chance of using: Medium

Handy for writers of curvy things to know…

Scacchic: having to do with chess.

Chance of using: Low

Chess is a popular game. Unlike the word ‘scacchic’

Sgiomlaireached: the tendency to arrive around mealtimes.

Chance of using: Very Low

I have a friend who’s just like that…

Tetrapyloctomy: the act of splitting a hair into four.

Chance of using: Low

It doesn’t sound like a very fulfilling pastime…

Utriform: in the shape of a leather bottle.

Chance of using: Low

How many things do you know that are in the shape of a leather bottle?

Vigesimation: to kill every twentieth man.

Chance of using: Very Low

Not a word you’re likely to hear very often. Unless you’re in court charged with killing every twentieth man…

Wroth: synonym for anger

Chance of using: Low

Commonly replaced with the word ‘wrath’. Or even ‘anger’…

Xanthic: yellow in colour.

Chance of using: High

Lemons, melons, daffodils, canaries, buttercups, dandelions, bananas…

Xerophagy: the strictest Christian fast observed chiefly in the Eastern churches during Lent

Chance of using: Low

The chances of using increase if you’re a Christian in the Eastern churches. Especially during Lent.

Xyresic: with the same sharpness as a razor.

Chance of using: Medium

My mother-in-law had a xyresic tongue…

Xystus: a large porch used for athletic purposes in the winter.

Chance of using: Very Low

Unless you’re an athlete. In winter. In a porch…

Yclept: to have been called by a certain name.

Chance of using: Low

I’ve been called by a lot of certain names at one time or another…

Ypsiliform: shaped like the Greek letter upsilon.

Chance of using: Low

If you can pronounce it. If not, ‘looks like the Greek letter upsilon’ will make a suitable alternative…

Zenzizenzizenic: a number that is another number raised to the eight power.

Chance of using: Very Low

Unless you happen to be talking about the number 256, the zenzizenzizenic of two. Or 6561, the zenzizenzizenic of three. Or 65536, the…

Zwitterion: a compound that has an overall neutral charge but contains atoms with positive and negative charges.

Chance of using: Very Low

If you’re one to talk at length about compounds then this is the one for you…

There are an uncountable amount of bizarre words in our language. Do you know of one that’s not on this list? Do you have a favourite? If so, I’d love to know what it is.

(I wonder if there’s a word for ‘being interested in another’s favourite obscure word’?)

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Writing


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