How many words are in the English language? It would seem like a simple question, but the answer is anything but.
New words are entering the language all the time. In 2019, no one could have predicted what has become a defining word of 2020: COVID-19. At the same time, existing words evolve. What’s the first thing that comes to mind with tweet? A bird or social media? Old words fall out of use, and we don’t just mean Shakespeare’s methinks. What do we do with VHS or MySpace? And slang words come and go. Do we count VSCO girl as a word if it ends up not sticking around?
To boot, English loves loanwords: is it time to count despacito as an English word? What about nonce words—those one-off, made-up, throwaway words that are perfectly understandable in the moment? Say, snacktabulous. What’s more, now we have hashtags (#MeToo) and emoji (Face With Tears of Joy 😂)—do these count as words?
Linguistically speaking, all these questions only scratch the surface. So, how many words are in the English language? Perhaps the best short answer is: more words than you’ll ever use. But, let’s try to narrow it down a bit more than that.
What even is a word, anyways?
The answer to this question is hotly debated in linguistics. A word can be defined as a “unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.”
Take run. It’s a simple, basic word, right? But take a second to list its different word forms: runs, running, ran. Do these count as separate words in our total? Or should we just count the umbrella lexeme run? A lexeme is “a lexical unit in a language, as a word or base; vocabulary item.” The lexeme of running is considered run.
The idea of a lexeme, or one vocabulary item, brings us to phrases: Black Lives Matter, emotional support animal, pre-main sequence stars. We think of them as units, but do we count them as single words?
And what about the loanwords we mentioned above? Casa is part of English, but do we count vamonos? You’d be hard-pressed to find a native speaker of English who doesn’t know casa means “house.” It’s been naturalized from Spanish, meaning it’s been “introduced or adopted (foreign practices, words, etc.) into a country or into general use.” Should we consider vamonos (“let’s go”) an English word?
Then there are variants (“a different spelling, pronunciation, or form of the same word”). Do doughnuts and donuts count? (When it comes to doughnuts, we tend to think the more the merrier.) More importantly, what about dialects and nonstandard forms (e.g., ain’t) that historically have not been “counted” as words?
And how many vocalizations (e.g., Blergh! Ack!) would make the list?
English is, of course, spoken around the world. Speakers of American English may not recognize terms common in world Englishes, such as South African English or Indian English. Do you know what spondulicks (British), jol (South African), or chuddies (Indian) mean?
English is a Germanic language, related to German, Dutch, Yiddish, and the like. They share some core structures, vocabulary, and sounds. Many of the most frequently used words in English are Germanic (not German) in origin, but over half its vocabulary is derived from Latin (much through French). Over the years, English has been influenced by and adopted words from various languages, and today, it contains words from hundreds of different languages. These words are estimated to make up about 80% of the English language.
While we have countless loanwords, we also have countless numbers. Here’s a thought experiment: we could count to infinity, not that we recommend doing that. If we counted every word for every number between one and 1 million (one, two, three …), that would make a cool million words right there.
How many words are in the dictionary?
Thinking about the number of words in the English language brings up the inevitable question: why can’t we just count up the words in a dictionary to get the answer?
For one thing, dictionaries are limited by space; for another, dictionaries count words in different ways and therefore differ in the number of entries they have. Dictionaries include headwords (also called lemmas) that a lot of people consider to be, authoritatively, words, but these also include prefixes, suffixes, combining forms, and other word forms and elements—many of which we don’t necessarily think of or categorize as words.
Dictionaries also differ in scope and audience. For example, there are learner’s dictionaries, for those who need to know the basics of a language, and scientific dictionaries that have those specific terms that only, say, a forensic nephrologist (membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis, anyone?) would ever use. That means each dictionary will have a different number of headwords, with some words appearing in multiple dictionaries while other highly technical words do not.
In general, unabridged dictionaries generally include over 300,000 entries, depending on how the dictionary counts an “entry”—and we’re back to the same thorny question about the different versions of run and all its inflections, or “change in the shape of a word, generally by affixation.”
Today, online dictionaries allow us to enter and document English like never before! This allows dictionaries to keep growing and expanding beyond their published editions.
What can we learn from corpora? (And what does that word mean, anyways?)
Digital technology lets us capture words like never before, too. A corpus is yet another way to capture a snapshot of the English language. Corpus most commonly refers to a large or comprehensive collection of creative works, such as all of the writings of a particular author. The word is used in a more specific way in linguistics to refer to an entire set of a particular linguistic element within a language, such as words.
One popular corpus is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains more than 1 billion words drawn from magazines, TV shows, blogs, and more sources, but these include multiple instances of the same word. According to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks language usage trends, the English language currently tops a whopping 1 million distinct words.
Included in such English language lists are tons and tons of scientific words that many of us don’t know but, of course, still qualify as words. They’re intimidating (think recombinant tissue plasminogen activator, electroencephalogram, and ohmmeter), but they are understood by someone—or maybe even two or three someones!
So, what’s the answer?
Perhaps the answer in this case is a different question: how many words do speakers of a language know? That answer is similarly murky, but according to at least one study, the average 20-year-old native English speaker knows an average of 42,000 words. In a 2011 interview with the BBC, lexicographer Susie Dent estimated that while an English speaker may know around 40,000 words, they only actively use about 20,000 of them.
Language and words are always changing, so it would be next to impossible to pin down an ever-evolving number. But now for the good news: that means even at the low end of estimations, there are far more words for most people to discover. We’ve got you covered with our Word of the Day, our slang dictionary, Thesaurus.com, and other resources—because there are plenty (plenty!) more words for you to add to your own list of 40,000 and counting.