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Save the date: English nears a milestone

But a million words may not be all that excessive, the Monitor's language columnist suggests.

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Scarcely has the new year begun before the calendar pages start filling up with lunch dates promised in Christmas cards and notes-to-self about next time, seriously, getting an earlier start on holiday gift shopping.

But from The Economist comes a reminder of a notable date of an altogether higher order. Is your stylus poised?

It's April 29, 2009 – plus or minus a few days. That is when the English language is expected to acquire its millionth word. This prediction comes from Global Language Monitor, an organization in Austin, Texas, which uses proprietary software to track and analyze trends in language. "Global English" is its particular focus.

A million words doesn't really seem excessive, given 1.35 billion speakers of English on the planet. That works out to only one word for every 1,350 speakers.

But the decision about just what is "a word" is not always absolutely clear cut. And just how do you count? Is dogs a separate word from dog? The Economist exudes skepticism but can't resist at least a brief celebration of the richness of English vocabulary, from the Scottish Highlands to Australia to India.

Among the words to have come into English from India, the Economist piece mentions shampoo. I might have guessed it had a French background. (Champoux?) Actually, Champoux turns out to be a French surname, and I've just wandered off to a French-Canadian genealogical site that is ... not on topic. Where was I? Shampoo, from the Hindi champo, was first recorded (1762) as a verb meaning to give a head massage. A century later it referred to washing hair, and a few years later, it referred to the soap with which one shampooed.

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