I've been thinking a lot lately about our decimal system and the way that exponential powers of ten capture our imagination. In part, that's because I've been called upon by various news outlets this week to counter a claim that the English language is adding its millionth word. But it's also because of a humbler, more personal milestone: what you're reading right here is (drumroll, please) my one hundredth Word Routes column.
First, the personal achievement: I started writing this column thirteen months ago, soon after joining the Visual Thesaurus team as executive producer. My inaugural column was about procrastination and related words, and I promised to deliver "further installments from the world of words without shilly-shally." Among the subsequent columns have been excursions into the language of politics, finance, technology, and music. I've reported on gatherings of lexiphiles like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year selection, the Dictionary Society of North America conference, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And I've had the pleasure of fielding great word-related questions from Visual Thesaurus subscribers, in nineteen "Mailbag Friday" columns. (Keep those questions coming!)
But enough about me. What about that much grander piece of power-of-ten news, the supposed millionth word? It's received an enormous amount of press attention this week, thanks to the ridiculously precise claim by an outfit called the Global Language Monitor that the million-word threshold would be passed "on June 10th, 2009 at 10:22 am (Stratford-on-Avon Time)." This absurdity has actually been running for three years: as I've discussed on Language Log (my other blogging home), the man behind GLM, Paul Payack, originally said that his "proprietary algorithm" predicted that this blessed event would transpire in the summer of 2006. Now he's finally brought his PR campaign to an end with the anointment of the millionth word.
Oddly enough, the "word" he announced as the millionth is Web 2.0. Leaving aside the technical issue of whether this should count as a word or a phrase, it's not exactly a fresh selection. It's a techie term that's already run its course, as the TechCrunch and Mashable blogs point out. Oxford English Dictionary chief editor John Simpson told the Daily Mail, "We find it curious that Web 2.0, a term that was coined in 1999 and has been in broad use since 2004, is being regarded as a new entrant to the language."
But the whole "Million Word March" is, I'm on record as saying, pure nonsense, since linguists and lexicographers agree that there is no way to quantify the English lexicon with any precision. I've made this point to inquiring journalists (from the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, and Houston Public Radio), and this week I was interviewed alongside Mr. Payack himself on BBC Radio 4, allowing me to rebut his claims directly.
I won't belabor the million-word story (or non-story) any further, but it's interesting to note that similar claims have been lurking for quite some time now. OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower passes along a precursor to Payack from the early twentieth century:
You have, in the English language, about a million words to choose from to express any idea that may enter your head.
— Frank Vizetelly in Popular Science Monthly, Dec. 1926, p. 30
Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly... estimates in the World Almanac that the vocabulary of English includes just a million words: '700,000 plus 300,000 nonce, obsolete, vulgar, low, etc.'
—"Taking the Census of the English Language," American Speech, February 1933, p. 36
The American Speech article goes on to note that other scholars felt that this estimate was too conservative: Harold Wentworth told the Saturday Review in 1931 that "there are from two to three million words in the English language."
Still, it's the magic "million words" that seems to grab people's attention — even now, more than eight decades after Dr. Vizetelly's pronouncement. I chalk it up to how we as a society fetishize decimalization, whether we're commemorating a hundred columns or a million words. Just think back to all of those endless Millennium celebrations (and all the heated discussions about whether to celebrate them at the start of 2000 or 2001). Powers of ten are all too powerful in our numerical consciousness.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer