As a writer, I am perpetually in search of inspiration. I try to create epic life experiences to draw from for stories of adventure, inspiration, entertainment and humor. I also draw from stories from the past. Sometimes a single word can inspire a noteworthy story or poem. Fortunately, words are easily accesible and affordable. Use 10 cent words to communicate, 2 dollar words to impress.
At my last writer’s group meeting, the facilitator gave the group a list of 5 words to try to use as a prompt for writing this month. I wrote them down, and immediately started writing poems for each one in my head, and tried to arrange them into stories.
Each word on the list is fecund with possibilities. Did I just use a $2 word? We also have “bargain” words that sound alike but have different meanings, homonyms. Homophones are a type of homomym that also sound alike and have different meanings, but have different spellings, Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. For the same price, you can use words like “bark” that can be used as a noun or a verb. “Jam” is a similar bargain.
All of this browsing for words of inspiration led me to wonder just how many words are there in the English language? It seems there is no simple answer to this question.
There is no single sensible answer to this question. It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g. dogs = plural noun, dogs= present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog?
It’s also difficult to decide what counts as ‘English’. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?
The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary 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. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don’t take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).
This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.
It’s good to know that there are nearly limitless words for inspiration because sometimes I get tired of trying to create and live epic life experiences.
Thank you for reading :)