A Million Words? He's Counting On It

GENERIC dictionary vocabulary slang words reading CBS/AP

By CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio.



Counting from one to 1 million — physically saying 1 million words — is said to take 23 days. But to make 1 million words? According to one California high-tech executive and his roving band of "language police," that feat has taken about 1,500 years for English speakers around the globe to execute.

That magic date when the one-millionth English word will be born should fall between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 2006, according to Paul JJ Payack, founder of the Global Language Monitor.

Payack says his estimation is based on a complex algorithm he has used for years to track the growth of words and phrases. When he tracks all words in the English language — and all its variants, including "Spanglish," "Chinglish" and even text-message icons — Payack says more than 980,000 words exist. So, with a growth rate of 10,000 words per month, 2006 will likely be the year of the millionth word, a marker some might say proves English's status as the Internet — and even verbal — global lingua franca.

Others call it complete bunk.

"[Counting words] is a silly thing to try to do, and it's impossible," said Dave Wilton, editor of WordOrigins.org and author of Word Myths: Debunking Urban Legends About Language.

"Based on everything I've read about it, it seems to be complete rubbish," said Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. "He's not even a linguist."

True enough, says Payack. "They say I'm a linguist, and I'm not a linguist," Payack tells CBSNews.com, after a spurt of press coverage plastered his name and faux title everywhere from the London Sunday Times to The Australian to The San Diego Union Tribune.

The New York Times only went as far as to call him a "word analyst." Whatever his title, Payack went from working full-time in a high-tech firm to founding the Web site YourDictionary.com, a decade-old portal for dictionaries in 230 languages. From there, he says he developed a fascination with trend phrases such as the currently-spreading "gravitas" and "outside the mainstream," or 2005's "persistent vegetative state" or "Plamegate."

So in 2003, Payack began what he calls "a personal spin-off" of Your Dictionary called the Global Language Monitor, in which he and seven like-minded language junkies "don't have to define things and pretend we're the OED."

Instead, the loose coalition picks out new phrases, tracks down their roots and stalk as they flourish or fade.

"Someone actually has to think of that phrase and say it," Payack said. "We look at something like 'wardrobe malfunction' and we can see how it grows and changes over time."

  • Christine Lagorio

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