How Many Words Are There in the English Language?

It’s complicated—and there are more questions than answers.
Break out the dictionary and start counting.
Break out the dictionary and start counting. / Daniel Grill/Tetra Images/Getty Images (dictionary page), Jon Mayer/Mental Floss (background)

Figuring out how many words there are in the English language is complicated for a number of reasons. Let’s start with its roots.

How the English Language Was Made

English was derived from Germanic languages that, as it developed, it took on elements of Romance languages like Spanish and French. As author and linguist Amanda Montell puts it in her book The Age of Magical Overthinking, “English has ... been called a linguistic ‘pickpocket,’ rummaging through the purses of nearby tongues for useful vocabulary.”

Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066.
The Norman Conquest ended with the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Consider the Norman Conquest, which began in 1066 and brought an estimated 10,000 words from French into English. Among the less obvious French loanwords English speakers use daily are terms like question, continue, and pedigree. Later, other words that still have their French flavor made their way into English: Mise en place, for example, a term used for preparation before cooking,entered English in the 1860s and has its own entry in English dictionaries. It’s just one of many cooking-related loanwords that never got anglicized (think al dente, umami, hors d’oeuvres). Do those terms, then, count as English words?

What about persona non grata, “an unacceptable or unwanted person,” and all the other expressions that came into English from Latin? And how about the scientific terms used to describe species of animals and plants—do those count?

Making Sense of Senses

The fact that there are also many words in English that have more than one sense, or meaning, throws another wrench into figuring out a grand total. And what about singular versus plural, or compound words? The book Questions of English demonstrates how quickly things get out of hand using the word dog as an example:

“[S]hould we count dog as one word, or as two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal,’ and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we also count inflexions separately, such as the plural noun dogs and the present tense of the verb dogs? Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since we might also find hot-dog or even hotdog?”

And, as Merriam-Webster notes, “languages are ever expanding [and] in addition, their boundaries are always flexible.” One does not need to be a Boomer trying to decode Gen Alpha slang to know that.

The Best Guesses

The bottom line is, it’s impossible to account for every word in the English language, which is not a very satisfying answer. But if you’re looking for a ballpark, the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary have come close.

According to the second edition of the reference book, published in 1989, they have full entries for 171,476 words in addition to 47,156 terms that are obsolete. That tally, however, doesn’t take into account words that have multiple meanings, in which case we’re looking at nearly 750,000 words, of which more than 100,000 are obsolete. Still, even those numbers, as Questions of English says, should be “taken with a large pinch of salt.”

It might be impossible to figure out how many English words there are, but we definitely know what the most used word is—it’s the, which accounts for around 4 percent of the words English speakers use.

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