What’s in a Word?

Words are nifty. They express complex ideas and our deepest emotions, they enlighten and enrage, and they enrich our lives in a multitude of ways. Without words, there would be no sentences or stories. No poetry or prose. We’d never have evolved beyond animalistic tendencies like grunting and thunderous flatulence. Some of us still haven’t, but that’s beside the point. Suffice it to say, words are pretty important. But they don’t always get the attention they deserve, so let’s take a quick look at a few little-known word facts.


1,025,109.8. That’s the approximate number of words in the English language, according to Global Language Monitor. (I wonder how they came up with .8 at the end of that number. Somewhere out there a word is mssng its vowels.) Google takes a more rounded approach, disagreeing only slightly and coming up with its own tally of 1,022,000. I think it’s safe to say the difference is insignificant.


That’s an absurd number of words. But how many do people actually use? StreetSmartLearningLanguage.com says that “Native English speakers know somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 ‘base words,’ which are actually word families that include all inflected and derivative forms (run, runs, running, runner, etc.),” so “the total range of words would be approximately 24,000 to 32,000 words.”


Okay, now we’re getting somewhere! They break it down a little bit more in their article, “How Many Words Do You Need to Know in a Foreign Language?,” noting that:

  1. 250 words constitute the essential core of a language, those without which you cannot construct any sentence.
  2. 750 words constitute those that are used every single day by every person who speaks the language.
  3. 2,500 words constitute those that should enable you to express everything you could possibly want to say, albeit often by awkward circumlocutions.
  4. 5,000 words constitute the active vocabulary of native speakers without higher education.
  5. 10,000 words constitute the active vocabulary of native speakers with higher education.
  6. 20,000 words constitute what you need to recognize passively in order to read, understand, and enjoy a work of literature such as a novel by a notable author.

So basically you need a base number of words in order to comprehend and express all the other words out there. Neat.


This got me thinking about the letters we use to create those words. The Phrontistery lays it all out pretty nicely, although they seem to base their numbers on what they found in the dictionary, not on the million+ words that actually exist. That’d be one stupidly large dictionary. Their list below states:

10 Most Common Starting Letters: p, s, c, a, t, m, d, e, b, h

10 Most Common Ending Letters: e, s, y, n, t, m, a, r, c, l

10 Most Common Letters Overall: e, a, i, o, r, t, n, s, l, c


It’s surprising that U isn’t in their list of the 10 Most Common Letters Overall. Poor U!


It’s no secret that words are added to the dictionary every year, and even though some like tweep and selfie may make logophiles cringe, the criteria for inclusion seems to be that any word in common usage is fair game. But what happens when a word falls out of common usage? Is there a retirement home for obscure words? The answer seems to be that they don’t really die, they just sort of . . . fade away, and then risk being struck from dictionaries altogether, and thus from the collective mind. The list of words below from Time all run the risk of being retired very soon:


Alienism, the study and treatment of mental illness
Cyclogiro, a type of aircraft propelled by rotating blades
Charabanc, an early motor coach
Drysalter, a dealer in certain chemical products and foods
Supererogate, to do or perform more than is required
Succedaneum, something that is used as a substitute
Woolfell, the skin of a sheep or woolly type animal with fleece attached
Wittol, a man who tolerates his wife’s unfaithfulness


Don’t worry. While this might be kind of sad, you can do your part to help start saving these endangered words by using them as often as possible. Not only will your geekery reach new heights, but you can also drive your friends and coworkers nuts. Just use a woolfell blanket as a succedaneum for your favorite bedspread, get comfy, and supererogate by adimpleating your obscure word knowledge with nifty articles by artigraphers like myself.


Vlad V. is the author of The Button, Yorick, and Brachman’s Underworld. His novella “The Sleep Artist” was published in Insanity Tales, a collection of dark fiction, in October 2014 (Books & Boos Press). His most recent release is his novella “Float,” published in Insanity Tales II: The Sense of Fear  in October 2015 (Books & Boos Press). His first kids’ book, The Moon is Dead!, was released in January 2015.
He is an editor, publishing consultant, freelance writer, and former newspaper correspondent for the Lowell Sun and Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.
His books are available through Amazon, as well as most bookstores.



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