We’re a wordy bunch, we English speakers. According to the Oxford Dictionaries’ Lexico website (“How Many Words Are There in the English Language?”), “The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, 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…. This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words.” And that excludes different meanings of the same words and other such variations.
A quarter of a million words? I’m at a loss for words. (Ha!)
The number of words in the English language dwarfs that in its nearest competitors: German, Russian, Spanish, and French. This is largely because English is notoriously sticky-fingered – we’ve been happily stealing words from other languages since we migrated away from our Germanic language siblings, Dutch and German. We were especially thrilled to find ourselves within pilfering range of Norman French and Latin after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
All that filching (and purloining, lifting, pinching, robbing, thieving, and appropriating) means we’ve ended up creating a language that has multiple words for almost everything. English is beyond compare when it comes to expressing ourselves with limitless layers of meaning and emotion.
In all of his plays, sonnets, and narrative poems, Shakespeare used between 18,000 and 25,000 distinct words (the number varies depending on who’s counting and how many variations of words they choose to count separately). Of those words, Shakespeare supposedly invented over 1700 of them, which means he invented somewhere between 7% and 10% of his own vocabulary. (What have you done for the English language lately?)
Shakespeare’s facility with language is one of the main reasons his writing is still considered so incredible, even more than four centuries after his death. He didn’t just kill off a character, he murdered them in a hundred shades of palpable intrigue, pain, or remorse, made possible by a complex language (which, by the way, he didn’t think quite rich enough to do the job, so he enhanced it).
Even if there are a quarter of a million English words available to us, as individuals we each know and use far fewer than that. When asked how many words the average English speaker knows and uses, linguistic experts typically respond: “Not that question again! Leave me alone, I beg of you!” Then they throw up their hands in despair and strap themselves into a straightjacket.
That’s because it’s nearly impossible to count the words we use. A single English word can take on many different variations, meanings, compounds, and tenses, so how do you know what to count? For example, there’s “dog.” Sure, you just thought of the four-legged animal, but what about the verb form, as in “I will dog you until you get your homework done”? Then there are variations like dogs (noun and verb), dogged, doggie, dog-tired, doggedness, and dog-breath. Are all of those separate words, or do they get counted all together with the single headword “dog”? (And would you say “dog,” “breath,” and “dog-breath” count as two words or three?)
So estimates of the number of English words we each know range from 25,000 to over 100,000, and we can multiply that several times over if we want to include all those variations, inflections, compounds, and tenses.
Where am I going with all of this?
Only this: we English writers are blessed to have at our disposal a language that is rich beyond our wildest dreams. We can evoke the caress of a springtime breeze, the horror of a grisly murder scene, the terror of an earthquake, or the shattering longing for love in finer detail and clarity than any other language can approximate.
So when we’re exhorted by our teachers, mentors, editors, or critique groups to “find not just an adequate word, but the right word,” we should listen, and listen well. Well-chosen words can separate a beach-read from a gotta-read, a “yeah, it was okay” from an “I’m giving this book to all my friends for their birthdays,” and an “I couldn’t get past Chapter 1” from an “I stayed up until 3:00am reading it.”
Pay attention to your words. Listen to them carefully. Nurture them. Prune them, train them, coax them, and strengthen them.
Revel in them.
They’re waiting for you. All quarter of a million of them.