How large is the English language?

Whenever someone starts waxing poetic about how expressive and vocabulary-filled English is, I like to point out that we don’t even have an English word for taco. It usually shuts them up for a few seconds.


By that logic, there’s an infinite number of words in the English language then, since the possible combination of atoms into molecules is theoretically limitless. I could write a computer program to dynamically generate every permutation of atoms, and by that definition, I’d have expanded the language by double within a few minutes, most likely.

Salt is a name because if I don’t introduce you to salt, you’ll have no idea what it is and no way to figure it out from the information I’ve given you. Sodium and Chloride are, similarly, names. But if you know what sodium and chloride are, you’ll know “sodium chloride” the instance you examine it, because you’ve found something which matches the description.

A name is a stand-in alias for a description, which only makes sense if you have been taught what the description is. If you just state the full description - however terse it may be - it’s still just a description.

It is large, it contains multitudes.

Sure we do. It’s “taco”.

"We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” - James Nicoll

Those winkies mean less and less every year.

Maybe my mistake was not including one of my own?

How about the names of numbers? Lots of people form them as compound words. (One, two, three … fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six … nine-million-eight-hundred-and-seventy-six-thousand-five-hundred-and-forty-three, nine-million-eight-hundred-and-seventy-six-thousand-five-hundred-and-forty-four, nine-million-eight-hundred-and-seventy-six-thousand-five-hundred-and-forty-five … ) If you do so, then there’s literally an infinite number of words in the English language.

That’s what I’m saying. We don’t use that many unique words every day, though. I guess you mean that’s an average working English vocabulary.

“Morphism” is in the OED, with cites back to 1955. (The first cite is from J. S. Huxley, claiming that he has invented the word.)

Probably what you remembered is the total vocabulary of the average, educated English speaker. IOW, the total lexicon a person knows.

As for the frequency and number of words we use on a daily bases, the Cambridge International Corpus (among others) shows that about 2000 words make up about 80% of the language we use as English speakers. Of course, this includes utterances such as yeah, oh, and so forth, and other discourse marking. So the most frequently spoken verb in North American English, for example, is know, because of phrases like you know, I know, you know what I mean, etc.

“Morphism” is also a technical term in mathematics. I can’t figure out when it was first used. I’ve just checked through this history of category theory:

It appears that the concept was first proposed in 1943. The term might not have been used for this idea until 1958 though. It’s hard to tell. There’s a entry on the term “morphism” which doesn’t say anything about the history of the term:

I wonder if this question can be answered; English is a “live” language that is constantly changing and evolving.