I've been thinking a lot lately about our decimal system and the way that exponential powers of ten capture our imagination. In part, that's because I've been called upon by various news outlets this week to counter a claim that the English language is adding its millionth word. But it's also because of a humbler, more personal milestone: what you're reading right here is (drumroll, please) my one hundredth Word Routes column.

First, the personal achievement: I started writing this column thirteen months ago, soon after joining the Visual Thesaurus team as executive producer. My inaugural column was about procrastination and related words, and I promised to deliver "further installments from the world of words without shilly-shally." Among the subsequent columns have been excursions into the language of politics, finance, technology, and music. I've reported on gatherings of lexiphiles like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year selection, the Dictionary Society of North America conference, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And I've had the pleasure of fielding great word-related questions from Visual Thesaurus subscribers, in nineteen "Mailbag Friday" columns. (Keep those questions coming!)

But enough about me. What about that much grander piece of power-of-ten news, the supposed millionth word? It's received an enormous amount of press attention this week, thanks to the ridiculously precise claim by an outfit called the Global Language Monitor that the million-word threshold would be passed "on June 10th, 2009 at 10:22 am (Stratford-on-Avon Time)." This absurdity has actually been running for three years: as I've discussed on Language Log (my other blogging home), the man behind GLM, Paul Payack, originally said that his "proprietary algorithm" predicted that this blessed event would transpire in the summer of 2006. Now he's finally brought his PR campaign to an end with the anointment of the millionth word.

Oddly enough, the "word" he announced as the millionth is Web 2.0. Leaving aside the technical issue of whether this should count as a word or a phrase, it's not exactly a fresh selection. It's a techie term that's already run its course, as the TechCrunch and Mashable blogs point out. Oxford English Dictionary chief editor John Simpson told the Daily Mail, "We find it curious that Web 2.0, a term that was coined in 1999 and has been in broad use since 2004, is being regarded as a new entrant to the language."

But the whole "Million Word March" is, I'm on record as saying, pure nonsense, since linguists and lexicographers agree that there is no way to quantify the English lexicon with any precision. I've made this point to inquiring journalists (from the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, and Houston Public Radio), and this week I was interviewed alongside Mr. Payack himself on BBC Radio 4, allowing me to rebut his claims directly.

I won't belabor the million-word story (or non-story) any further, but it's interesting to note that similar claims have been lurking for quite some time now. OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower passes along a precursor to Payack from the early twentieth century:

You have, in the English language, about a million words to choose from to express any idea that may enter your head.
— Frank Vizetelly in Popular Science Monthly, Dec. 1926, p. 30

Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly... estimates in the World Almanac that the vocabulary of English includes just a million words: '700,000 plus 300,000 nonce, obsolete, vulgar, low, etc.'
—"Taking the Census of the English Language," American Speech, February 1933, p. 36

The American Speech article goes on to note that other scholars felt that this estimate was too conservative: Harold Wentworth told the Saturday Review in 1931 that "there are from two to three million words in the English language."

Still, it's the magic "million words" that seems to grab people's attention — even now, more than eight decades after Dr. Vizetelly's pronouncement. I chalk it up to how we as a society fetishize decimalization, whether we're commemorating a hundred columns or a million words. Just think back to all of those endless Millennium celebrations (and all the heated discussions about whether to celebrate them at the start of 2000 or 2001). Powers of ten are all too powerful in our numerical consciousness.


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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 11th 2009, 7:36 AM
Comment by: Randy Alexander (Jilin City China)
Great BBC interview. Money quote is when Paul Payack himself says "when Ben talks, he's, he's right."

Congratulations on your 100th!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
My wife read me an article about the millionth word. She wondered also if "Web 2.0" was actually a word. I googled it and told her that it had 96,300,000 hits, which at least constituted something that a lot of people might look up in a Dictionary. It occurred to me at that time to wonder how it took so long for a word I've been using for years to get into the dictionary.

There's no harm in the "millionth word" hoopla, in my opinion.

BTW, speaking about Powers of Ten (which I guess we actually weren't), one of the greatest demonstrations of the subject is at
http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/java/scienceopticsu/powersof10/

Fascinating!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 8:04 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Don H.: I don't fault Mr. Payack for selecting a phrase like Web 2.0, since he's made clear all along he's interested not in words per se but lexical items, i.e., "something that a lot of people might look up in a dictionary." (Similarly, the American Dialect Society has in the past selected as Word of the Year phrases like red/blue/purple state -- as Jesse Sheidlower has noted, "Lexical Item of the Year" doesn't look so great on a press release.) Still, even as a lexical item, Web 2.0 seems pretty stale.

Is the hoopla harmful? Well, it does expose the willingness of many in the media to repeat flawed information uncritically. It also serves as an unnecessary distraction from the fascinating scholarship about the English language that careful linguists and lexicographers are doing every day. I've tried to feature some of that research here on Word Routes: how new words get formed, how regional Englishes are developing around the world, how electronic communication is affecting language use, and how new digital resources are revealing the histories of words and phrases that were previously unknown.

And yes, I did have the great film/book "Powers of Ten" in the back of my mind when I titled this post!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Ben Zimmer: Congrats on the century article mark. Here's to your millionth. Will there be a trillion English words by then?
Thursday June 11th 2009, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on the topic of the "Millionth Word".
Also, in my reading of "The Madman and the Scholar" ... the story of the 75-year process that in 1928 produced the Oxford English Dictionary ... engendered in me a new level of admiration for our beautiful English language.
What's the next topic on your agenda?
How about the concept of "zero"?
Speaking scientifically and linguistically, I seem to run into so many people that seem to have no interest or curiosity in common concepts and uses of language or in the units (words) we use to communicate.
In our dance lessons, the beats of each measure are counted by integers...never with zero.
Yet, we know, intuitively, that the beginning of a series begins with "1"...not zero.
Why then, do we accept the concept that your newborn nephew is not "one" year old until he begins his "second" year?
I'd like to hear some discussion on this, Ben. As I know you will enlighten many of us geeky types!
Thursday June 11th 2009, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Darwin Z.
Since "web 2.0" is being foisted on us as the millionth word, wouldn't it be appropriate that the Millionth word be "ten(to the 6th) " . Just thinking Darnie Z
Thursday June 11th 2009, 3:29 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
A one month old baby is just that, a one month old baby. He or she is not one anything else, and is 11 months short of a year.

The lack of a 'zero' in computing years complicates calendars, and confuses figuring when things happened. And the establishers of our current calendar contributed to this problem by not beginning with a 0 when they began the new way.

Thus we had that silly confusion over when a new century began,

I do believe that mathematicians say that calculations can be done without a zero, and that some civilizations have managed without one.

But did they go to the moon?

(Just a question! I have no idea whatsoever!)
Friday June 12th 2009, 6:18 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
The lack of zero is confusing, but obvious. If I'm going to count the people in a room I wouldn't start with zero. I was a tech writer for a couple decades so I really do use the zeroth position for a number of listing tasks I do personally.

BTW, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero to see more about zero than you probably care about.

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