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How Many Words Do You Know?

How many words (lexemes) do you think the average person knows? How many lexemes are there in the entire English language?

Neither of these questions have a real answer.

An individual’s lexicon (the number of words he knows) will vary considerably depending on his career(s), hobbies, reading habits, and so much more. A chemist or other scientist will obviously have a larger vocabulary than most people, due to the fact that there are so many scientific terms that he’s required to learn. A person whose job doesn’t require much reading or terminology will probably have a smaller lexicon. Because of these cases, averages really don’t mean much. ┬áThe media claims that a good average for those leaving high school is probably 10,000 – 12,000 words, and for those leaving college, about 20,000 – 25,000. These would (should) continue to grow over time.

But then we have to think about our definition of lexicon. Do we mean active vocabulary (words used often) or passive vocabulary (words known, but not used)? The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language has the results of a little experiment the writers conducted while researching. They asked three people (a secretary, a keen businesswoman who reads a lot, and a lecturer) to go through a few pages of words (20 pages from a dictionary – 1% of the whole dictionary) and mark the words they knew. Then they used percentages to figure out how much they might know of the whole English language. Their active vocabularies were (respectively): 31,5000, 63,000, and 56,250 words; their passive vocabularies were 38,300, 73,350, and 76,250 words. These differ on average by about 25%.

Want to increase your word power? There are 106 2-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary; I bet you don’t know most of them! AA = a type of lava. GI = an article of clothing worn for martial arts. LI = Chinese unit of distance. I could go on.

So how many English lexemes are there? We don’t know that either. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) has about 616,500 entries as of 2008. When we compare the words in Webster’s to the OED, there are many words that aren’t in one that are in the other. So the total number of words is probably much higher. The OED has more British terms; Webster’s has more American expressions.

Neither of those counts includes the myriad new slang terms that arise continually, or the terms used in the varieties of English spoken around the world (in India, Asia, Africa). They also fail to include most scientific names of plants and animals. And what about abbreviations? Isn’t FBI a word? If we decided to count these words, the English lexicon would have many millions of words. In a lifetime a person learns only a tiny percentage of the words in the English language.

How do you think your personal lexicon holds up?


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I hope it holds up well! I used to teach vocabulary for the GRE and I’m a future librarian. I too love words, and try to increase my active vocabulary, not just my passive. That is challenging however because words are a tool of communication so you have to make sure that the words you choose are appropriate for the context. I don’t mind using rare, more difficult, or larger words though since if someone asks and I explain it helps build their vocabulary too. Oh! And if you haven’t seen it check out http://www.freerice.org where they have awesome vocab building games.

  2. 2

    lexicon, lexeme…lexus? i wonder about how they came up with the auto comapny name. what is the “lex” part? are there any connections to the name alex or alexis?


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