How Many Words Do You Know?

How many words do you know? It is not a trick question.

If anyone had bothered to ask Bill Clinton that question, he would presumably have replied that it depends on what the meaning of “word” is. And that would not have been an inappropriate answer. For example, do all the different parts of speech in the conjugation of “to be” (I am, you are, she will be, etc) count as separate words or as part of a single word family? Bill was very familiar with conjugation, if the rumors are correct, which raises the further issue of how to count homographs and homophones. And then there is the difference between our active vocabularies and our larger passive vocabularies – words we understand but almost never use. There are many ways to count, and great opportunities for confusion!

What triggered this rumination was a snippet that a foreigner would have to learn about 2,000 words to be able to read a Chinese newspaper. That is comparable to English-language newspapers, where it is estimated that about 2,000 separate words would encompass most of the text, although complete understanding would require in the range of 6,000 – 8,000 words. A review of the Wall Street Journal over a period of a decade showed it used a total of around 20,000 separate words. For comparison, a very patient researcher analyzed 7,000 editions of Chinese newspapers and found about 60,000 different words, most used rather rarely.

To put things in perspective, the English language is estimated to have around 1,000,000 total words (however defined), with obviously many of them being parts of speech, technical, arcane, and used mainly by small subsets of English speakers (or lawyers).

China’s government sponsors the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) Language Proficiency Tests, which assess language competence at Levels 1 through 9. By level 9, the foreign devil will have learned 1,200 characters and understand 11,092 polysyllabic Chinese words. That seems like a challenge! But it is still far short of the estimate from various studies that the average mature native English speaker knows 42,000 – 48,000 words. Even the child-focused animated movie “Shrek” reportedly used a vocabulary of about 7,000 words.

Intrigued, I performed a statistically unsound test. I opened my ancient copy of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language at random on pages 994/995 – obligable to obtuse. I counted 106 entries on those two pages, of which 64 were in my active or passive vocabularies. Heroically scaling that up to the full 1,664 pages would give a very approximate estimate of 88,000 entries in the entire dictionary, out of which I would have at least a passing familiarity with about 53,000 words.

Saying those 53,000 words at a rate of one per second without repetition, it would take about 15 hours of constant speech to utter my entire vocabulary – which I have to admit does not seem probable or achievable. It may be that our passive vocabularies are a larger share of our total vocabularies than it would be comfortable to admit. All of this brings us back to another question Bill Clinton was never asked – Does size matter?

As an aside, this ramble used around 290 unique words. That amounts to about half a percent of the estimated vocabulary of a typical native English speaker.


Your question drove me to my 1970 edition of an unabridged (so-called) dictionary. It’s not the OED and it’s American so take that for what it’s worth. The principal part of the dictionary, excluding maps, scripture proper names, and other supplementary material, has 2129 pages with three columns of words on each page. I estimate there are more than one million words in it, though some are derivative so probably shouldn’t count separately.

A spot check of a few pages results in a tally of 10 to 15 words I know on each page but it’s tricky. Should prickly and prickliness count as two words? Probably not.

Any case, the most interesting part of this exercise was to look up some words that seem to give folks difficulty these days. In particular,

  1. the female of the human race , or women collectively, as distinguished from man.
  2. an adult female human being.
    (There are four more but, curiously, none of them mention trans-women.)

Some time ago I took this “Online English Vocabulary Size Test”, which estimated my vocabulary size as 29,485 words, which it ranked as “Top 0.23%”, with the comment “★★★ You are Shakespeare! You can even create new words that will expand the English dictionary.” This leads me to suspect that the test lacks resolution at the high end (although there were some pretty obscure words toward the end), and that a more comprehensive test might provide a better estimation for those this one ranks close to the top. Certainly, a vocabulary around 30,000 seems around the median for English speakers, not Shakespeare!

The artificial international auxiliary language Basic English had a core vocabulary of 850 words with the recommendation of “an additional 150-word list for everyday work in some particular field, by adding a list of 100 words particularly useful in a general field (e.g., science, verse, business), along with a 50-word list from a more specialised subset of that general field”, adding up to a total of 1000 words. Basic English has the curious property is that is easier for a speaker of another language to learn than a native English speaker to write or speak, since the English speaker must constantly remember which words are present in Basic English and make up circumlocutions for everything else.

Special English was defined by the radio station Voice of America in 1959. It is used for broadcasts to those who have or wish to develop a base knowledge of English. Here is its 1580 word vocabulary.



I just got:

Your English Vocabulary Size is:
★★★ Top 0.01%

Ok, yeah, small pleasures. :grin:

For sure. Only one of the words made me pause, and use elimination. “avulse”, fwiw.


Apparently, the “Lingua Franca” (based on French, of course) used by the Crusaders consisted of only about 150 words. Presumably words for such as “sword”, “attack”, “no surrender”, “food”. And with only 150 words, that very mixed force of Northern & Southern Europeans was able to take Jerusalem! Maybe communication is over-rated?