How Many English Words are There? (And How Do Dictionaries Change?)

by | Oct 24, 2018


A study, published in 2010, by Harvard and Google, examined about 5 million digitized books published between 1800 and 2000 and found:

  • About 8,500 words enter the English language each year
  • in total, there are just over 1 million words in the English Language
  • The number of English words has grown about 70% since 1950
  • About 1/2 of the new words are not in any dictionary and were dubbed in the study “Lexical Dark Matter.”

Dictionaries struggle to keep up with all the new words and the changing meaning of words. Two of the most common dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionaries, update quarterly. In terms of process of finding new words and meanings, Merriam-Webster states:

Editors spend an hour or two a day reading a cross section of published material, including books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications; in our office this activity is called “reading and marking.” The editors scour the texts in search of new words, new usages of existing words, variant spellings, and inflected forms–in short, anything that might help in deciding if a word belongs in the dictionary, understanding what it means, and determining typical usage. Any word of interest is marked, along with surrounding context that offers insight into its form and use.

Potential new words marked by editors are then researched. They determine how broadly new words are used. To be included in Merriam-Webster, “a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.”

Some of the words added to dictionaries over the last few years include:

  • Nothingburger: Something that is or turns out to be insignificant or lacking in substance.
  • Tarantinoesque: Reminiscent of the works or themes of Quentin Tarantino (born 1963), American film director and actor, best known for violent yet humorous films with nonlinear plots.
  • Hangry: Bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.
  • Mansplaining: a man’s action of explaining something needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, especially to a woman, in a manner thought to reveal a patronizing or chauvinistic attitude.
  • Binge-watch: To watch multiple episodes of (a television programme) consecutively or in rapid succession, typically on DVD or through a digital streaming service; to watch (episodes, a season, etc., of a programme) in intensive or extended bursts.
  • Post-Truth: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief
  • Energy Vampire: A person regarded as one who drains enthusiasm and emotional or mental energy from others, esp. by demanding a great deal of attention or care.
  • TL;DR: too long; didn’t read — used to say that something would require too much time to read
  • Zoodle: a long, thin strip of zucchini that resembles a string or narrow ribbon of pasta
  • Time Suck: an activity to which one devotes a lot of time that might be better or more productively spent doing other things

In addition to being on the lookout for new words, editors also note any words whose definitions may be changing or which have new, additional meanings.

A good example of the meaning of a word changing is “snowflake.” Originally, snowflake referred just to a snow crystal. Over time a new, derogatory meaning has arisen on social media. Now, snowflake also means: An overly sensitive or easily offended person, or one who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics.

Another example is an additional definition of the word “ghost.” Ghost, in addition to referring to an “apparition of a dead person” now also a verb which means “to abruptly cut off all contact with (someone, such as a former romantic partner) by no longer accepting or responding to phone calls, instant messages, etc.”

Related IFODs:

What Happened to Latin?

Words that Have Opposite Meanings

How Many Languages are Spoken in the World?

What Does Peruse Mean?


  1. TL;DR

    Just kidding, John!

  2. Why are comments in the peruse section closed? There seemed to be myriad comments; I didn’t have time to peruse them – only to take a brief snapshot.

    • I think comments close after a certain period of time. I didn’t close them.

  3. I had to mansplain what mansplaining was to my wife this morning….it’s a disease with no known cure.


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