Vocabulary, treasure and pleasure

By Joseph J. Kozma

I was asked one time: What writer in English used the highest number of words? The answer was Winston Churchill. He used 60,000 words out of the known 80,000 in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the English language around 65 years ago. Now a concise English dictionary contains about 171,000 words. New words are added every day in every language. Many words are truly new, and many are created by compounding two or even three.

In contrast, the vocabulary of an average American in those days would have included 1,200 words. These are the components: Basic English, 800; words needed at work, 200; words of foreign origin yet easily recognizable, 200. This makes for a total 1,200 words. The Basic English according to C.K.Ogden can be subdivided roughly as outlined above.

If the average person read the newspaper, he was exposed to far more than 1,200 words. He would not have necessarily understood each word, but would have understood the content of an article. That is because knowing 6-7 percent of the words allows you to understand 90 percent of the content.

It is generally accepted that Shakespeare added 1,500 new words to the English vocabulary. Some authors claim that he invented them. If so, how well was he understood by the masses? In his days, the enjoyment of literature was limited to certain classes of people – particularly those who were literate. These people probably enjoyed his linguistic skills. However, it is more likely that a deep analysis of his work was carried out, including the counting of his new words, after his death.

Let’s look at Churchill’s 60,000 words using 600, the average length of essays in The Source, as a yardstick. It would take two years to get all of that in print.

Keeping track of language development is a huge undertaking. There are approximately 7,100 languages in our world and they have an influence on each other. A word in one language might be old but could be new in another language. Those influences and changes do not occur with scientific precision. They occur during conversations in everyday life, in literature, particularly poetry, in law, art, studies of history and various other aspects of human communication skills.

If this does not seem complicated, look at another aspect of linguistics: cataloguing the newly “found or developed” word, meaning, creating a new dictionary. A decision is to be made: include or not include. There is more. Here is an example of words that have undergone decisions: coffee, tea, house … these are accepted words. But how about these: “coffeecup” and teacup. “Coffeecup” is not an accepted new word, but teacup is. If you participate in a spelling bee, you probably know that. If not, and if you do some writing, a self-correcting app will help. What kind of yardsticks the dictionary makers – Webster’s, Oxford, etc. – use is not widely known. It really did not matter in the past, but now, in the age of linguistic apps, it might just make a difference to teachers, writers, publishers and proofreaders.

Do other aspects such as slang, idioms, street language and expressions of various underground cultures eventually enter the accepted vocabulary? The answer is yes. I am sure most people know at least one such word of recent use. Yet on the other hand, words and expressions can and do fade away. It is a dynamic balance that never stops because we never stop communicating. The result is an ever-expanding treasure of words, readily available for our linguistic pleasure.

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