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Thought you had a big vocabulary? Think again

January 30th, 2014
02:54 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

If you thought you had a big vocabulary, think again.

The average English-speaker knows between 25,000 and 40,000 words, Oxford English Dictionary Chief Editor Michael Proffitt told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

His organization – which bills itself as the “definitive record of the English language” – has recorded 800,000 words and counting, he said.

“Even people who are doing 40,000, at the highest end, it’s about five percent of what we’ve got in the OED,” he said. “And that’s not all the words in the language.”

Proffitt has just taken over the helm of the OED, the first succession in 20 years, and he faces a unique challenge.

How will the revered dictionary stay relevant in a 21st century world of Tweets and text messages?

There are practical decisions, like how do customers access the dictionary; editorial ones, like which new words should make it into the dictionary; and questions of speed – the latest revision of the 20-volume dictionary will not be complete for another 20 years.

But to hear Proffitt describe the challenge, it’s nothing new.

“It was one of the first reference works available on CD-ROM,” he said. “And then it was also one of the first reference works available online, in 2000.”

Some of the most seemingly modern of words, like “selfie” and “defriend,” are in the OED online edition.

And others, like “unfriend,” are much older than we might think.

“This is often the case when we research words,” Proffitt said. “We found an example of ‘unfriend’ from 1594. … It was somebody saying, ‘I hope this event hasn’t unfriended us.’”

And that’s only when it is used as a verb; as a noun, he said, the word has been in usage all the way back to Old English.

Even “omg” – an initialism most often associated with California valley girls – had its first usage in a 1917 letter written by a British admiral to none other than Winston Churchill.

It’s exactly the kind of unexpected etymology Proffitt seems to view as the OED’s selling point.

The online edition tends to have short definitions for “practical” use; the print edition, however, gives the “biography” of a word – “you see a whole life story.”

Linguistic purists are often irked by the way many words are used in contemporary English – perhaps none more-so than “literally,” used when something will not in fact “literally” happen.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said this week that “the world is literally about to blow up” – an astounding thought were it to “literally” come true.

“It’s interesting that it’s picked up as a particularly problematic word,” Proffitt said, “because there’s lots of other words like ‘actually,’ or ‘really’ that could be sort of prescribed in the same way.”

“Clearly a lot of people use it for exaggerated effect. And it works, I guess – it gets the attention.”

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