A Truly Limitless Word Count?
To start, let’s get one thing clear: It’s next to impossible to know how many words there are in the English language. This is because we have no standard and agreed-upon method for deciding what constitutes a “word.” The language is constantly evolving and growing.
People and cultures continually create new words. Meanwhile, outdated and archaic words fade into obscurity. To know how many words there are, you would need to track every word every day, and you’d need to do it without pause. Languages are how people communicate, which means they are as alive as we are.
Making Sense of All the Variables
Since English is a reflection of the people who use it, you also have to take into account all of the slang words and super-specific terms we create. There are the words that don’t appear in the common vernacular. Do we count these words as well? What about regional differences?
For example, the longest word in the English language is 189,819 letters long. This word, which we will definitely not be spelling here, is the complete name for a type of protein commonly referred to as “titin.”
That monstrosity of a word — and many other scientific terms — raise the language’s word count to unreasonable amounts. As explained by Dr. Adam Crowley, an associate professor of English at Husson University’s College of Science and Humanities, there would be about a million words in the dictionary if we included all of these terms.
The Count Keeps Climbing
How about words with different meanings? “Word” has dozens of definitions, depending on which dictionary you use and how you’re using it. Should “word” count only as one entry, or should we consider it a unique term for all of its different uses?
Then, there are numbers. Numbers, any type of number, is theoretically also its own word. If dictionaries included numbers this way, there would be an infinite number of words. It’s an extreme example, but it shows why there needs to be a cut-off point for what we count as “words” in the English language.
What Do Respected Resources Say?
When trying to determine a reasonable but definitive number of words in the English language, it’s best to look at the resources experts have compiled. These resources would be the dictionaries we all use on a regular basis.
Most dictionaries exclude the scientific terms, numbers and slang words that, if added, would make the total list of words incredibly massive. Publishers design these books to reflect the words used by a large number of people and groups. It’s not just about how many words are in the English language, but rather about how many words people actually use.
For a proper understanding of what dictionaries contain, we can look at two of the oldest and most respected dictionaries: The Oxford English Dictionary and the Webster’s Dictionary.
The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the current edition originally published in 1989, contains approximately 600,000 words. Of those 600,000 words, a little more than 171,000 words see common and regular use in modern English.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1993 Addenda Section) has roughly 470,000 entries. Similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, many of the included words are not used regularly.
As you can see, even the largest dictionaries don’t come close to matching the total number of words out there. But, that’s not what they are trying to do. Their goal is to prioritize the words that are the most useful in everyday life.
How Many Words Do We Really Use?
The words in the dictionaries are definitely not all of the terms out there, but they do contain more than enough words for the average person. In fact, the average person will never come remotely close to using all of those words in their lifetime. This is because normal communication only requires a smaller set of words.
Most adults who speak English natively only know a little more than 40,000 words. And, according to lexicographer Susie Dent, most people only use 20,000 words of those 40,000-plus words on a regular basis:
“The average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is around 20,000 words, while his passive vocabulary is around 40,000 words.”
The Value of Word Lists
While it’s not 100 percent clear how many words are in the English language, we know how important it is to compile the most complete lists of terms we can. The best way to do that is to create lists that target specific needs. We have our general dictionaries, and we have our collection of scientific terms for professionals and students. We also have our lists for recreation. These would be the official Scrabble dictionaries, for example. If you’re an avid Scrabble player, you’ll definitely want to study up to figure out which word list is most useful to you.
Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.