The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED, yours new for only $1045, plus domestic or international shipping), revised and published in 1989, contains the titular number of words or at least full entries for that many words. Another 47,156 obsolete words are also included. Beyond these large categories are another 9,500 words derived from some set of the above two supersets. The roughly quarter million words that fit these definitions and those in the referenced article do not include technical or regional words or various senses of some of the enumerated items included in the 0.25M count. To summarize, there are a whole bunch of words in the English language.
Some of those obsolete words are far from obsolete if your reading habits take you into the earlier part of the 20th C. and before. The farther back you go, the less archaic some of the words become. If you’re going to read Samuel Johnson, a lexicographer in his own right, or Jonathan Swift, you better have a chunk of a lexicon handy. Billy Shakespeare is going to give you a run for your money as well! It was no mean feat to craft 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems mostly in iambic pentameter or other forms of metered, rhyming verse; his trove of verbiage was wide and deep, not to mention full of high and low wit, political and cultural satire, and whatever else moved him. WS (aka The Bard) died 50 years before Swift was born and there were probably several words slated for the slag-heap of the mother tongue in those decades. All of this, honestly, renders the notion of obsolescence a bit droll. People are still reading will.i.am S. ‘pearington, probably less Swift and Johnson, but we move on to other matters.
As I pondered broken-hearted in my labyrinth of yore, I
heard a raven fly and light upon my study’s leaden door.
I turned my addled pate its way and gazed upon this frightening
sight, musing that my time had come for His Satanic tariff
to be paid, my ephemeral presence gone the way of all before.
“What ho, bird!” quoth I to it, a jaunty note struck I. It dropped
it’s beak and returned my quip: “It’s time for you to die!”
©2016, just now, me
Why would I craft some doggerel at this point in a daily? For a couple of reasons. As I pondered today’s word, I told myself “no more!” I already do a pretty fine job of approaching these prompts in as oblique a fashion as I can. Today would be another. But how?
I thought that the number of words, excluding the prod, was probably huge, although I did not know the number. I also thought that there might be websites devoted to words for authors who, at times and when appropriate, favored words that had fallen from grace. Strangely enough, I found this site:
In short order, I had found a font of linguistic gymnastics that virtually everyone has encountered at some point in their education (certainly if one speaking only the tongue of the Sceptered Isle). Our word could have been any of these Po-etic choices. But no!
Then I found this 21-page pdf called A Guide to Eighteenth-Century English Vocabulary. That should expand the possibilities by at least another hundred years, although I suspect that some of these 18th C. words were starting to atrophy in the mouths of commoners while they were still appearing in novels, essays, verses, and legal tomes of that storied time.
It’s not difficult! If each word in the OED weighed (that, of course, is the mass of the word under the influence of gravity) 1 gram, 250 million words would weigh (pretty clearly for us metric aficionados) 250 million grams, better expressed as 250,000 kilograms or 250 metric tons (I believe the U.K. and perhaps other countries still use “tonnes?”).
So, while avoiding today’s word, I may have had a mischievous spark dancing about between my retina and cornea. Or not. Only I know….
If you find other troves of literary words, please let us all know.
Featured image from Oxford University Press