1 Millions Words! But Who's Counting?
I don't blame you for losing track, but today was supposed to be the day the English language reached 1 million words. For a few years now, Paul Payack of the Global Language Monitor in Austin, Tex., has been issuing these deadlines like a millennialist preacher predicting the end of the world. Don't worry: He's already moved the magic date to sometime in June. Stay tuned for more extensions. (You can watch the English Language WordClock here.)
Last night, I called Benjamin Zimmer to ask him about this elusive million-word milestone. Mr. Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. When I mentioned the subject of my call, I could hear his heart sink, the way your doctor sighs when you ask (again) about the health benefits of bull semen.
"We can definitely say that English has a large lexicon," he admitted, "but when you start to quantify its size, you find that you have to make subjective decisions about what counts as a word and what counts as English."
So the millionth word may not arrive exactly on June 8?
"If you ask any serious lexicographer," this serious and very patient lexicographer went on, "he'll say that this is a meaningless claim that can't be substantiated. And it ends up creating a false impression of precision for something that is ultimately subjective."
But can't we just count the words in the dictionary, and have a party when we get to 1 million? Mr. Zimmer wasn't having it.
"There are numerous objections to coming up with a particular number that has any relation to the size of the English lexicon. English is very productive, and there is no clear place to draw the line. For instance, it's very easy to add the prefix 're.' So, do you include every single time you've created a new verb by attaching 're'?"
Okay, but let's say we settle on the rules of the game. Then can't we start counting toward the big One Mil?
"If it's a matter of celebrating how rich the English language is," he conceded, "that's something everybody can appreciate, but this is just a publicity stunt. It's catnip for journalists."
"English has always been very porous, very welcoming of words from a variety of sources, different parts of the world and other languages. The way the Oxford English Dictionary continues to expand and find new sources for words is very exciting. But all that can be appreciated without trying to come up with an exact number that tries to quantify that."
I get the feeling I shouldn't invite Mr. Zimmer to my Million Word party this summer.
-- Ron Charles
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