Blogs Jun 5, 2012 at 10:37 am


I don't understand -- that 52% can't possibly be true. More than half the words used in English books are not in the dictionary? Maybe you'd better get a better dictionary -- but even with a standard pocket dictionary, I still don't believe it. The average English book uses a vocabulary of maybe 1,000 words -- maybe more, but not a LOT more. I read a lot of books, including ones on pretty abstruse subjects, and I know my (twenty-odd, including OED and Webster's 2 and 3) dictionaries inside out, and I encounter words that aren't in them quite rarely. Your own item here contains some funky lexicography, but all of it's in the dictionary.

I checked one word she mentions, "slenthem", and while it may not be in your OED, it's in Wikipedia, which gives a clue as to why it's not in the dictionary -- it's not an English word. Are they counting every passage of foreign text that appears in an English book? What about those parallel readers, with English and another language on facing pages, like my beginning Spanish ones, or the entire Loeb Classical Library of Greek and Latin, a couple of hundred volumes? Are they counting proper names?

I'm skeptical. I am a radical descriptionist (there, is that one in the OED? That's one) and fully recognize the role of dictionaries to respond to living language, but I just can't believe this claim.
The other day I caught an MSNBC story showing some of the TV advertising in the Wisconsin recall race, and the Scott Walker ad they highlighted had him condemning his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, for wanting to spend $100 million on a "trolley" in Milwaukee.

(First, let's get the terminology straight. What we're talking about here is technically a streetcar. Apparently, Walker, like those fans of the acronym "SLUT," prefers the less precise and correct, and obviously less flattering, term "trolley.")

What galls me is that, of all the things Walker chooses to attack Barrett on, it's his desire to build rail infrastructure in his city. Unless Milwaukee screws up its streetcar line, the real estate development and tax base and jobs it attracts will more than pay for the $100 million investment.

Barrett is trying to do something that will make Milwaukee more competitive with comparable cities, something that will actually grow Milwaukee's economy, and yet because it's public transportation Scott Walker feels compelled to attack it. More evidence that the Republicans are the anti-growth, anti-business, anti-American competitiveness party.

The sad thing is that Wisconsin, I guess, is a backward-enough state that Walker honestly thinks that attack helps him rather than makes him looks like a Luddite lunatic.

CAVEAT: Not a big streetcar fan here, but I'm willing to trust the research that shows that such lines manage to promote economic development.
Disregard my comment @2. Was meaning to comment on the Wisconsin recall post, obviously.
No, thank you!

Best ever dictionary jokes: the Blackadder episode, Ink and Incapability, where Johnson seeks the prince's patronage. Blackadder delights in making up words that aren't in Johnson's Dictionary to fuck with him. Wanting to get him to leave fast, he calls it "velocitous extramuralization" which should be a real phrase.…
@2: Well, Barrett has probably lost the bicyclist vote, then. Streetcars are like kryptonite to them.
Thank you for writing "You're welcome" and not "Your welcome.". My nephew insists that they're (not their) interchangeable now.
Thanks for that article, I am a word nerd. I just wish complIment and complEment were not words.
@1, the word you want is "descriptivist".
@1 Most vocabulary is rare vocabulary. It's called Zipf's law. For example, the frequency and count of Moby Dick's distinct words are graphed here:…

And slenthem seems as legit to me as glockenspiel.
Me thinks the peoples out there need to learn the words we got before they start inventing new ones.
More of this, please. I would love to have daily word nerdery on a daily basis.
@11, "Methinks" is one word. Perhaps you should work on your vocabulary before you start critiquing the vocabulary of others.
there are actually two types of dictionaries, descriptive and prescriptive. so some dictionaries try to reflect language, and others actually do try to be the other way around. i'm more pro-descriptive myself though.
I earned my way through my first year of grad school writing dictionary definitions. The words for the new dictionary were chosen by culling through about seven other popular dictionaries. Turns out, dictionary publishers include words in their dictionaries that they make up. Why? Because if they find their made up words in other dictionaries they know they've been plagiarized. I loved the idea of constructing sentences out of out of these phantom words, and even included a few in papers I submitted for classes. Not one of my professors every commented on the inclusion of these words.

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