The Million Word March

What defines a word? Lexicographers and other experts don’t always agree


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The Austin, Tex., has been tracking words for the past five years. Using its own teams of experts and its own algorithm, they say English adds a new word every 98 minutes. This means there are more than 900,000 English words in the world, and the one-millionth will appear sometime in April 2009.

In contrast, most standard dictionaries have about 200,000 words, unabridged dictionaries about 600,000.

But the Monitor is so sure of its numbers it has started a Million Word March, a countdown to the one-millionth word.

"We went back to the Middle English and saw that the definition of a word was 'a thought spoken,'" said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst at the Monitor, "which means if I say a word, and you understand me, it's a real word."

Payack counts staycation, Facebook and Wikipedia as words. But he also follows some of the old rules. For example, words that are both noun and verb, such as "water" are counted only once. He doesn't count all the names there are for chemicals, because there are hundreds of thousands.

Once the Monitor identifies a word, it tracks it over time, watching to see where the word appears. Based on that measurement, they decide if the word has "momentum," basically, whether it's becoming more popular or if it's a one-hit wonder of the linguistic world.

At first glance, this seems a lot like a dictionary's system.

"It's the same as the old [method], just recognizing the new reality," Payack said. The Monitor's method gives a lot more weight to online citations.

But is Payack's "new reality" well, real? He claims that the fast flow of information and the advent of global English have changed the way people use words. And that the gap between the words people use and the words that appear in dictionaries might be on the rise.

"It turns out that once something enters the Internet, it's like an echo chamber," said Payack. Since the first web browser appeared in 1991, the Internet has added a lot of words to the English language—dot-com, blog—and it's added these words fast. The Web has also taken existing words to new ears.

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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