Is 1,000,000 words possible?

The Global Language Monitor, which was born from the ashes of, focuses on trends in the use of language, primarily through automatic algorithmic readings of texts on the web. The latest news from the site (and you’ll notice, should you visit the site, that most of the “news” on the homepage is articles where the GLM is mentioned) is that English will soon create its 1,000,000th word.

This number is still yet to be verified by a more renowned source, but in its last printing, the 1989 version of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (a decent place to start) listed a total of 231,100 “main entries”. With the addition of obsolete and spurious entries and cross-referenced entries, the total is 291,500. I wholeheartedly agree that the Internet and technology in general has ramped up the generation of new words and phrases, though many are “obsolete” or “spurious” soon after their inception (no one in 1989 would know what Obamamania was, and no one in 2009 or beyond will be using it with any regularity). So should “Obamamania” be the class of word in the list, that’s a bit misleading. Additionally, since these bots (recent inception for that as well…) cull apparently any word that appears online and counts it, then reporting that George W. Bush misspoke and said “misunderestimate”, then “misunderestimate” is now counted as one of the million, right? Bad system. The report also states that verbs and nouns are broken down into their different forms: be, is, are, was, were, etc. are all counted separately. That is “double-dipping” (in my mind, an acceptable entry).

In the end, one million is a MASSIVE number…inconceivably so. A few statistics to refresh your memory:

Shakespeare’s working vocabulary: 17-30,000

Average person’s vocabulary: 10,000

Number of “average vocabularies” in one million: 100.

Conclusion: this claim of having one million words in English, regardless of the influences of foreign languages and technology, is spurious. But GLM has even more publicity now, so it looks like at least one mission is accomplished.