No Discernible Circumference

We at Broken Spines have taken it upon ourselves to improve the vocabulary of Matt H.  To wit, I thought we would start by quantifying the task at hand.  We have no illusions, it will be an awesome task. 

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, cautions us:

The Vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits… there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.

That said, the OED2 has over 600,000 definitions (over 1,000,000 if you include scientific words).  Webster’s Dictionary claims over 475,000 main “head words.”  According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language passed one million words at 10:22PM GMT on June 10, 2009.  Apparently, in the intervening 5 days, we’ve added 73 words, because today the count is 1,000,073.  So, what was the one millionth word?  “Web 2.0” beat out Slumdog Millionaire and gamer slang:

1,000,000: Web 2.0 – The next generation of web products and services, coming soon to a browser near you.

999,999: Jai Ho! – The Hindi phrase signifying the joy of victory, used as an exclamation, sometimes rendered as “It is accomplished”. Achieved English-language popularity through the multiple Academy Award Winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire”.

999,998: N00b — From the Gamer Community, a neophyte in playing a particular game; used as a disparaging term.

999,997: Slumdog – a formerly disparaging, now often endearing, comment upon those residing in the slums of India.

Check here for FAQs on GLM’s methodology.

But, far more interesting than the quantity of words is the quality of words.  And for that we turn to a fantastic feature of the New York Times website: you simply select the word in question, a little question mark appears, and when you click on the question mark a small window pops up with a definition. 

In Paul Krugman’s May 24th column “State of Paralysis,” he uses the neo-Latin word “sui generis”:

Sui Generis




After clicking the question mark, here is the definition that pops up:

NYT Dictionary

So, which words are clicked the most often?  The Nieman Journalism Lab has tallied them for us.  Test yourself and see how many you know.  Matt H., this is your vocabulary list for the next bout.  There will be a test.

NYT vocabulary


1 Response to “No Discernible Circumference”

  1. 1 bobbyjones June 16, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Our dictionary is bigger than yours!

    Jennifer Schuessler writes about the folly of counting words:

    “It’s not like the French are impoverished because they have fewer fish names than we do,” [Geoffrey Nunberg] said.

    Indeed, some linguists argue that our obsession with the odd profusion of English misses what is really distinctive about the language: its grammar.

    Lots of languages have a mixed-up lexicon, but few have English’s hybrid structure, said John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute. English grammar “has been bastardized by Celtic and then beaten up by Vikings, who made it simpler than it would otherwise be,” he said. “We are speaking a bastard and beaten tongue with a very unusual grammatical history.”

    But try getting anyone interested in a story about that.

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