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How many words are there in the English language?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

As a trainer I pride myself on being able to answer the many questions my trainees ask. But here’s one that got me stumped on a writing workshop the other day: how many words are there in the English language? My initial response was to say “a lot” which, at the very least,  has the virtue of being correct but in every other respect isn’t terribly helpful. So here is my slightly more considered response…

It depends who you ask and how you count.

Ask an organisation called Global Monitor who profess to keep tabs on such things and they’ll tell you 1,019,729.6 (yes, you read that right – point six)!  They base this questionable figure on a trawl of English words on the web. Do the trawl manually through all 20 volumes of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Diction and you’ll arrive at the much lower (but still impressive) 171,476. They base their figure on words in current use and count the same word each time it has a distinct and different meaning. For example, the word dog appears at least three times in the OED list – once as a noun (as in the dog barked); once as a verb with a traditional meaning (as in to follow persistently); and once again as a verb with a more modern meaning (as in…well, you know what I mean and if you don’t use your imagination)!

Whoever’s figures you choose there’s no arguing it’s a lot. So why so many? Another good question and an easier one to answer…

It’s Harold’s fault!

Before Harold Godwinson was beaten in the Battle of Hastings the English language had a largely Germanic root thanks to the Angles and the Saxons who populated our island  from the east. Post 1066 William the Conqueror’s Norman buddies brought with them a whole new vocabulary rooted in French (itself rooted in Latin) and rather than supplanting the Anglo Saxon lexicon the two grew up alongside one another. And since then we’ve since added many other words borrowed from the various languages of our once huge Empire (from India bungalow, pajamas and  jodhpurs to list but a few).

This presents writers with a huge challenge: which word do we choose?

To fight or to battle that is the question

In his “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech Winston Churchill is said to have chosen the old word “fight” instead of the equally valid but newer word “battle” because he felt it would stir the British bulldog spirit more effectively. And you can’t argue with Churchill. So when you’re pondering which word to use, choose the one which conveys your meaning most precisely and which moves your reader most effectively. You don’t need to be spoiled for choice providing you choose well/select properly (delete/cross out as applicable).

Happy writing.