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."

Meow.

"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
Twitter here

By Ron Charles |  April 29, 2009; 11:59 AM ET Ron Charles
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Interesting stuff--learning all kinds of things I hadn't heard of before from this blog.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | April 29, 2009 9:49 AM

I don't know anything about the million-word business, but is there any chance of getting Benjamin Zimmer or, I don't know, Congress, to enact a statute that would allow for the zapping of 1,000 volts of electricity through anyone who uses "impact" as a verb?

Posted by: andrewsalomon | April 29, 2009 10:59 AM

From Paul Payack of the Global Language Monitor.

Even attempting to count the number of words in the English language continues to ruffle the feathers (extending the cat/catnip analogy) of serious linguists (the class of which neither Noah Webster nor Samuel Johnson could qualify).

Of course, you have to make subjective decisions when accounting any measurement, which is why you define criteria and a methodology in the first place. We have published this information for a number of years.

As a media analytics organization, we had long wondered why there was this reluctance to count the number of words in the English language. For hundreds of years scientists have been in the measurement business, using statistical analysis to make rigorous estimates.

I recently read that astrophysicists have concluded that there is a significant portion of the Universe that we cannot see (known as dark matter). How did they arrive at this conclusion? They simply weighed the universe. I'm sure that there are serious astrophysicists who once maintained that there were subjective judgments to be made, and hence the measurement should not even been attempted.

The date of the arrival of the Millionth Word has, indeed, changed a few times, because as we refined our research, we saw that our published count had gotten ahead of the original mathematical projection, and made the necessary adjustments. (We came back to our original estimate of the number of words and rate of word creation and adjusted the count accordingly.) The statistical variation of 36 months equals .0021 in the life of a 1400 year old language. (Who new anyone was keeping track?)

By the way, over the years, we have invited the handful of linguists who are the go-to-guys for the media, to have this conversation directly with us. Our offer has never been accepted.

The original purpose of the Million Word March was to demonstrate the richness and diversity of the English language, which continues to add words from all corners of the planet at an amazing rate. With some 1.53 billion speakers as a first, auxiliary, or business language, English is now being hailed as the first truly global language. Let the celebrations begin!

Posted by: PJJP | April 29, 2009 4:49 PM

Hilarious! Do let me know when the celebration is; even if it's not the right day, I love a good party.

Posted by: arttaylor | April 30, 2009 9:27 AM

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