40 dictionaries to define “English”


OED: Oxford English Dictionary


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“Many light” oranges.


“I have no time.”




How many English words do you know? You have more than a million to choose from.

THE  first Oxford English Dictionary took 70 years to finish. It was published in 1928 and had about 250,000 words that it defined. The full second edition, the one most used today, has about 500,000 definitions that fill 40 volumes [large books]. A third edition should be finished by the year 2045. It will have so many words that it will probably never be published in book form, but will only be available on the internet (or on whatever comes after the internet). 

     When a word goes into the Oxford Dictionary, it never comes out, but new meanings are added to it. Take, for example, the word “run”. It has more definitions than any other word: 645 to be exact. So a dictionary is also an amazing history lesson. Compare the “old” meaning of the word freedom and the new. In the 1828 Webster Dictionary the first [the most used] definition is: 1. A state of exemption [being free] from the power or control of another; exemption from slavery, servitude [from the word “to serve”] or confinement [being in prison]. Today, the Oxford Dictionary’s first definition is: 1) The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance [making something difficult to do] or restraint [limiting or stopping something].  

     It takes more words to define the word “go” in English than there are words in the entire Taki Taki language! It is spoken in a South American country called Suriname and has about 350 total words. But the word “go” in English has 368 definitions! Does that mean people in Suriname don’t talk a lot, or that they have quick ways of saying things? Let’s take the example of the South African word ubuntu. To understand ubuntu as a South African understands it, you need at least ten English words: “Can I be happy if everyone around me is sad?” The words that come close to the meaning of ubuntu in English are: respect, unselfishness, sharing, community, kindness, caring, trust, generosity. Ubuntu is all these words together. Even this doesn’t really define the word, because it’s something a South African feels without words.  Here’s another fun example. The Eskimos have one word to say each of the following types of snow: “snow that looks blue in the morning,” snow that sparkles in the moonlight,” snow that “makes sled dogs happy,” that “sticks to your eyebrows,” and that “is icy on top and soft underneath”. Some say there are as many as 5o different words for “snow” in the Inuit language of the Eskimos. 

     Does your language have one word for when you bite into something really hot? You open your mouth, wave your hands, and say “aaahhhhh”! In Ghana to describe all that you say “Pelinti! ” If you look worse after a haircut in Japan, the word for that is ageotori.  It seems impossible that there is a language with no words for colors. But a people in the Amazon, the Piraha, have only the words dark and light. They also have no words for numbers. They have only the words few or many. One or two is few. More than two is many. In Japanese, there’s no way to say you miss something. The Algonquins, a Native American people, did not have a word for time. But in English, “time” is used more than any other noun.   

     What about new words? Do you know the new word drizzmal? It is a sad, rainy day. Or do you know the new English word, nonversation? It’s a meaningless conversation that has no point or worth.  Is there a word for someone who tries really hard to learn English as a second language? We call it “wonderful.” —Mrs. Chips

    P.S. In its entire history, the Oxford English Dictionary has never made a profit [earned more money than it spends] because it is so expensive to produce.

 ©InterestEng. July 2013  §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com