The most recent estimate of the number of words in the English language is 1,009,753 (as of May 24, 2011). At the current rate of increase, about 15 words are being added every day. This estimate is provided by the Global Language Monitor, a media analytics company in Austin, Texas, which “documents, analyzes and tracks trends in language the world over, with a particular emphasis upon Global English.” Their estimate of the total number of words in the English language is bounded by other estimates, including one published in Science based on an analysis of Google Books texts (the difference between the two was 0.0121%).
Recently, Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic published a nice little reflection based on his experience of finding a 1927 Webster’s Dictionary. Opening it to the listing entitled, “New Words,” he found a much less robust list of new entries for the time since the dictionary’s last edition in 1909. Some of the words introduced are now commonplace, including activist, airplane, rayon, nucleus, Yuan, windshield, and movie.
Madrigal focuses on one word that has since gone by the boards:
cosmocracy, n: a. A government including the whole world. b. The people of the world, esp. when regarded as the source of government.
To Madrigal, cosmocracy is a word that we may want to embrace again, especially the second definition, which seems especially pertinent in the Internet age.
Having a number of older dictionaries in my house, I wandered to the shelves to find that my early 20th-century New Century didn’t have a quick access point to neologisms, while a 1928 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (with a copyright on its main pages of 1918) presented a pathway via the section labeled “Addenda,” which includes listings like anti-aircraft, blimp, autotruck (an automobile truck), seaplane, pliotron, and moniker. Some words are still in use, some are archaic or remain specialized jargon I’m not familiar with (let me know if you still utilize a pliotron, please).
Interestingly, the word “newsprint” is listed in this same addenda — “A kind of thin machine-finished paper made from mechanical wood pulp, with an admixture of chemical wood pulp, and used largely for newspapers; — called also print.”
We’re accustomed to words having inherent meaning, but there is another meaning they have, which emanates from how they are preserved. Captured in books and similarly fixed media, they gain a meaning bounded by time and human activity. While our online databases are useful and powerful, there is a permanence — a frozen moment in history — that print still captures better. Having these little enduring snapshots of a culture can be entertaining, informative, and humbling.
They may be only words, but fixed upon a page, they are more. They are traces of our history.