At only 100 words a year wouldn't English have dwindled to nothing by now?
December 1, 2008 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Is the English language stagnating or do dictionaries just suck?

Every year we're momentarily fascinated by the press releases that come out of publishing companies touting the new words added to the dictionary and we pause and think "My, how the times have changed"

Except they only seem to be adding 100 words or so a year (according to the same press releases). Considering the number of words in English (hundreds of thousands), the relative youth of the language (what 800 years?) and words falling out of use, one hundred new words annually doesn't seem to begin to account for all the words we have.

The following possible answers have occurred to me:
- English is stagnating. (Hard to believe given the exciting new places it's been employed lately.)
- Dictionaries aren't particularly authoritative.
and / or
- One should not get lexographic information from press releases.

Can the applied knowledge of MeFi Wordsmiths shed any more light?
posted by Ookseer to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
English is stagnating.

Exactly how many words should English be adding? Have you measured English change versus the change in French, Japanese or Chinese (let's assume mandarin here for the sake of argument).

Maybe 100 new words a year is actually a lot.
posted by GuyZero at 12:51 PM on December 1, 2008

English is anything but stagnating--now that it is a global language, it is probably changing faster than ever.

The thing is that dictionaries, at least the respected ones like Webster's, are very, very conservative in adding new words.
posted by Camofrog at 12:58 PM on December 1, 2008

A lot of new "words" are new uses for old words (e.g. mouse). I would bet that count of 100 doesn't include new meanings created for existing words.
posted by Class Goat at 12:58 PM on December 1, 2008

I'd go with answers 2 & 3. Check out (parts are NSFW) if you want to see a number of ways that English is being added to/changed, without acceptance from dead tree dictionaries nor promulgation via PR pieces.
posted by knile at 12:59 PM on December 1, 2008

IANA linguist, but I find it unreasonable to expect the number of words in a language to increase linearly with time. Even a young language needs a large enough dictionary to be functional, while a large number of the existing words have been imported from other languages ( as an aside, I understand English is notorious for this ). After that, adding new words should be considerably harder, and be dominated by things like technological advances, cultural exchange and the desire of lexicographers to appear in the news once a year.
posted by ghost of a past number at 1:00 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's a whole list of things that have to be matched before a new word gets included in a dictionary. Frequency of use and reliable citations are a part of it.

And no, the English language as a whole is far from stagnating, in fact it's expanding at an astonishing rate, especially with regards to International English, but all of the new coinages for International English don't necessarily make the cut for inclusion into a dictionary.
posted by mandal at 1:01 PM on December 1, 2008

The yearly updates aren't where big changes are made. That's what the new editions are for, which only come out every 10 years or so. Enough time to make sure a word will last. Merriam-Webster added 10,000 new words/definitions between the 10th and 11th editions.
posted by smackfu at 1:08 PM on December 1, 2008

I would think that not adding words would be an example of a language stagnating, by any reasonable definition of the word stagnate. In other words, and to echo others here, I think you're looking at this the wrong way.
posted by ob at 1:32 PM on December 1, 2008

The English language is not stagnating, and dictionaries do not suck. I actually think the opposite is the case in both regards.

All you have to do to see that the language is still very much alive is, well, read Internet forums, for one. Stuff like 'meh', 'LOL', 'googled', etc. are proof that users of the English language are coming up with new words and new usages to old words all the time. Not to mention slang and dialects. Hip-Hop is a great source for new words and creative usage, and I mean that sincerely.

As for dictionaries, that is hard work. There are two schools of thought, prescriptive and descriptive. I think the really great dictionaries try to walk the line, though I'm not a linguist (I just took a class on it once).

Remember that until recently, dictionaries had to be printed on paper, which costs money. So creating an infinitely large dictionary that updated constantly just wasn't practical or profitable. The line on what was and was not worthy of inclusion had to be drawn somewhere. Dictionary makers are probably still coming to terms with what the Internet can do for them. About all we know is that isn't the answer.

If you want to go really deep here, study the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was the subject of the most fun research paper I ever had to write. Here's an essay from 1860 -- "On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries" -- which proves that the problems you're talking about are nothing new to lexicographers.

I've searched for an online version of James Murray's introduction (or maybe it's a preface) to the first edition of the OED, but can't find it. It's a beautiful piece of writing and he basically says, "This thing isn't perfect, but it's the best I can do without going crazy." We're now on the 3rd edition of the OED, and compiling a dictionary isn't getting any easier.
posted by thebergfather at 1:34 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Look in the OED and you'll notice that the vast majority of words in English aren't used very commonly. We use only a small fraction of the words in the dictionary.

What's the average English speaker's vocabulary? I've found hugely different figures, but take this quote for example:

David Crystal described a simple research project — using random pages from a dictionary — that suggests these figures are severe underestimates. He concludes that a better average for a college graduate might be 60,000 active words and 75,000 passive ones.

Assume that for each of those 100 "new" words a year that there are 200 new meanings a year for preexisting words (and I'd guess that that's an underestimate.) That's 300 words a year. And those newly added words tend to be "general" in nature, not specific to occupations and specialized use, per se. "Blog," for example, is a new word, but most of us know the meaning. In a person's 80-year life (in other words), they will come across roughly 24,000 new words / meanings which didn't exist prior to their birth. Compare that to their estimated vocabularies and it's a HUGE amount of "general" new words for a language.

Given that most of the words we use daily are the same old nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, etc, and even given that many of these "new" words will fade from use quickly (I can't imagine you'll hear "fax" or "floppy disc" ten years from now in general use), and even given that some percentage of these words will remain unknown to an individual English speaker . . . well, that's still a whole lot of new words.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:41 PM on December 1, 2008

Best answer: The Wikipedia article estimates 25,000 new words per year. Here's the reference: Kister, Ken. "Dictionaries defined." Library Journal, 6/15/92, Vol. 117 Issue 11, p43, 4p, 2bw
posted by sbutler at 2:04 PM on December 1, 2008

Is the English language stagnating or do dictionaries just suck?

From the preface of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, 11th ed. (2003):
The ever-expanding vocabulary of our language exerts inexorable pressure on the contents of any dictionary. Words and senses are born at a far greater rate than that at which they die out. The 1664 pages of this Collegiate make it the most comprehensive ever published. And its treatment of words is as nearly exhaustive as the compass of an abridged work permits. As in all Merriam-Webster dictionaries, the information is based on the collection of 15,700,000 citations maintained in the offices of this company. These citations show words used in a wide range of printed sources, and the collection is constantly being augmented through the efforts of the editorial staff. [...] The citation files hold 5,700,000 more examples than were available to the editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary [unabridged], published in 1961, and 1,200,000 more than the editors of the Tenth Edition [1998] had at their disposal. The editors of this edition also had available to them a machine-readable corpus of over 76,000,000 words of text drawn from the wide and constantly changing range of publications that supply the paper slips in the citation files. It is now nearly four times the size of the corpus used by the editors of the Tenth Edition.
So I guess it depends on your definitions of both "stagnate" and "suck."
posted by scody at 2:20 PM on December 1, 2008

"At only 100 words a year wouldn't English have dwindled to nothing by now?"

Is this some sort of cultural reference that I don't get, or are you actually suggesting that the dictionary should be shrinking because things are added to it?
posted by toomuchpete at 2:34 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Except they only seem to be adding 100 words or so a year (according to the same press releases).

Your third answer is correct: One should not get lexographic information from press releases. Dictionaries are adding lots of words all the time; check the latest update from the OED. The language is growing at a faster pace than ever.
posted by languagehat at 2:47 PM on December 1, 2008


I took it as meaning [(100 new words) - (>100 words falling out of use) = negative growth each year = eventually dwindling to nothing].

Which is wrong, but it makes sense internally.
posted by CKmtl at 3:06 PM on December 1, 2008

Once a language has plenty of words -- like English -- I wouldn't expect there to be a lot of new words just for the sake of having new words. There would have to be new things that require new words. There would be new slang and jargon, of course.

With that in mind, though, I feel exactly the opposite. With all the technological advances I'm inclined to feel like we're adding more words than ever, though I don't have anything to back that up. Have you ever tried talking about computers around people that don't know anything about them? There are so many words they don't know that they can't even follow the conversation.
posted by Nattie at 7:26 PM on December 1, 2008

Nthing that English is not stagnant nor do dictionaries suck. Divining trends from press releases, however, is not academically sound.

Really, as said above, International English is amazingly fluid. Just keeping up with the Mumbai incident gave me several new ways the language is in use. Indians apparently don't say "gunfire", for instance, they say "firing(s)". Many words describe things unique to India. There were variable uses of prepositions that sometimes confused me (prepositions can be quite different between languages, but also apparently between dialects). There are probably influences from Hindi and other local languages that underlie these differences.

Similarly, the recent post on the blue about Lagos, Nigeria shows that English is alive and well as a primary language on yet another continent. When you consider all the different places that English is spoken it's hard to consider it a candidate for stagnation at all.

And certainly not during an era of great technological or social change. New things need new words -- or repurposing of old words. Think of a word as apparently distinctive as computer. It's been around for a while, but it used to be a person's job, not a device.

And just think of the variety of phrases using existing words that may not have been used when you were a kid -- "hooking up", "friends with benefits", "baby mama" all refer to things that were socially unacceptable in America a generation ago (though obviously practiced throughout history).

No, if you're trying to make an argument for stagnation, you're looking at the wrong language or using the wrong metric. A dictionary is not the measure of a language.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 PM on December 1, 2008

What you're not taking into account in your assessment are all the words with updated and changes entries. Think about the meaning of awesome, livid, come, notebook, run, etc. and how those words have changed in scope, meaning or context.

My personal interest right now is "uppity"...recent claims about this word used pejoratively by politicians during the election caused me to do some serious nerd researching. The racist connotation wasn't listed in any of the major dictionaries, despite the many people (especially from the South) who knew of this word to refer to black people that 'didn't know their place.' Many claim that this is a common connotation, originating from Jim Crow era. So its possible that this alternate meaning has probably been around for 60+ years, without citable reference. I'm just offering this example for some perspective on other phenomenon going on with the language. And when you consider the linguist*-to-word ratio, the dictionary upkeep is staggering.

*talking about linguists working on dictionaries specifically.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:03 AM on December 2, 2008

Considering the number of words in English (hundreds of thousands), the relative youth of the language (what 800 years?) and words falling out of use, one hundred new words annually doesn't seem to begin to account for all the words we have.

Another faulty assumption (while i would disagree with 800 years too, that's irrelevant). Your statement seems to assume that English should have a new word rate of at least 125 words/year (100,000/800) and probably much more. However, English didn't spontaneously come into being, so its not as though all the words in the English language were invented only during the time English has existed. English did not start from a vocabulary of 0, it evolved out of another existing vocabulary.
posted by NormandyJack at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2008

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