or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Without Number

About a month ago I wrote about the number of words the average person knows, and here's a link to a story in Slate about the number of words in the language. In a nutshell, an organization claims that we're nearing the million-word mark, with an oddly specific 988,968 words currently in existence. The article's author, Jesse Sheidlower, asks the sensible and obvious question: Well, what exactly is a word?

Does the infamous "set" count once, or four times (once each for intransitive verb, transitive verb, noun, and adjective), or fifty times (once for each definition on Answers.com), and who gets to decide, and either way, shouldn't "set" meaning "social group"--a definition Answers.com neglects, by the way--be counted as a different word from "set" meaning "to knit together, as a broken bone", since the definitions are so vastly different?

Is "scruncheons" a word? It isn't in the OED, but it assuredly is an English word: it means tiny cubes of salt pork fatback, fried until crisp, and they are so delicious. The word is also here, with a collection of different spellings, in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Is that one of the words already presumed to be in the English language, or have we just boosted the count to 988,969?

The Global Language Monitor folks do some interesting stuff, and I do enjoy reading their website. But anybody who thinks they can quantify the English language right down to the word is delusional.


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