HOW MANY NEW WORDS?

A recent Language Log post by Geoff Pullum takes issue with this putative statistic: “The genius of English is the way it updates itself every day, with 20,000 new words a year, Watson read somewhere.” Leaving aside the issue of the annoying lack of attribution for the claim, Pullum wonders whether it’s even possible that English is adding 20,000 words a year. “That’s really a lot. It’s 55 a day. That means two or three new words becoming established every hour, day and night.” He basically leaves it there, but Mark Liberman takes up the question, coming at it from several angles: additions to dictionaries (around 2,500 per year), new trademarks (>100,000 added per year), and terms in science and technology (“probably many more than 20,000… new names coined every year”). Liberman rightly (in my opinion) discounts the trademarks, but I think he’s too quick to dismiss the scientific terms. As rebarbative as “GDP-L-fucose synthase” may be, I don’t see any principled way to distinguish it from the long line of terms that have preceded it, from atmosphere through phlogiston and quark. The OED has from the beginning tried to include scientific terminology, and although it’s probably impossible by now to keep up with the details of every specialty, if they’re used in the normal course of events by the specialists concerned, they’re bona fide English words and deserve to be counted. Whether it’s possible to do an accurate count, of course, is another matter altogether.
Update. Mark Liberman has added further thoughts in response to this entry, and a gentle [sic] therein prompted me to eliminate a stray -e- that had somehow crept into a mention of his name.

Comments

  1. Scientific names are about as international as words can be. So every word added to scientific vocabulary is added to every language in which science is done, not just English. New scientific terms are derived in some godawful Greek-Latin-French-German-English compromise language anyway, not really in English.

  2. So, how does Chinese handle scientific words?

  3. My guess is that they insert the words alphabetically into whatever they’re writing. Common Chinese words have been coined for basis scientific concepts, but I’m sure that they don’t coin new ones for every new organic molecule and new species that comes along.
    The elements of the periodic table each have their own unique graph with an arbitrary pronunciation. I’m not sure, but probably the more common long-known elements are named from their traditional names, but for the rare ones it’s just coinages.
    It’s an interesting question though. Even more so: in how many languages do people do, for example, organic chemistry research? Most scientists work in one of a handful of languages, and they all have to at least be able to read one of the main ones. I doubt that there’s much organic chemistry done in Dutch, for example, or Rumanian, much less Yoruba or Quechuan.

  4. Zizka’s right, science coins relatively few new English words. Suppose someone just discovered GDP-L-fucose synthase, for instance: that’s not a new word, it’s just a (somewhat half-assed) naming system in action. (There is, of course, a properly systematic naming convention available for use with most things, but in the case of enzymes it comes up with horrid unpronounceable strings of letters and numbers so the damn things still need everyday names.) The words involved are whatever GDP stands for (maybe guanosine diphosphate?), L-fucose and synthase, and none of them are new. In the same way, most new scientific terms are more phrases than words.

  5. Some new words and expressions can be found at http://www.wordspy.com. Not sure how accurate it is, but the site is great fun.

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