Live

Watch CBSN Live

A Million Words? He's Counting On It

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."

And in the background, his algorithm, called the Predictive Quantities Indicator, ticks away counting words and adjusting to tips from more than 100 "language police" — Payack's fond name for his tipsters around the globe. As of Jan. 16, 2006, at 1:16 p.m., the number of English words, according to the P.Q.I., was 985,955.

Payack says the Global Language Monitor Web site now gets 30 million page views per month — and with sections of lists and word analysis titled "Bushisms" and "Hollywords," the site's popularity is not surprising.

But Payack's claim to being able to pinpoint, in the near future, when the one-millionth word in the English language is born has gotten more hype that any other of his Global Language Monitor's recent claims. Is it worth attention?

That depends what you think of as a word. Payack says he favors a broad definition, allowing global English to take up and blend with other languages. His count includes words in "Chinglish," "Spanglish" and those bred from hip hop culture. Even a text-messaged "LOL" or ":)" counts as a word.

"The whole thing is that it is not an exact science. His theory is as valid as any other," said Daniel Ward, editor of Language Magazine. "Language develops so very quickly. Some people say there are 2 million words in the English language, some say there are a half million."

Sheidlower is among the former camp. The OED, which he edits, contains 600,000 defined words and phrases. But "there are millions upon millions of chemical terms that could be regarded as words, which I'm guessing he doesn't, because then there would be millions (of words in his count)."

Wilton concurs: "I'd say there are half-a-million named species of beetle alone."

Payack knows he's got skeptics, but he identifies the real enemies of his research as "postmodernists and deconstructionists" who tend to deny that any definition of a word is suitable. Payack's definition: "anything that can be understood. If millions of people are saying 'bling bling,' we'll accept that."

And they do accept "bling bling" — along with "a'ight" (all right, urban U.S. origins), "fundoo," (Hindi for cool in India) and even all the components of "lol ill ttyl gf ;)."

View CBS News In