English Is Shrinking: Word Extinction in the Digital Age

English Is Shrinking, Study Finds

Proof that English is shrinking? The term röntgenogram has been killed off by its lexical competitor x-ray.

English is shrinking, and so are Spanish and Hebrew, according to a recent study on language evolution published in Scientific Reports, a primary research publication from the publishers of Nature.

Using data from Google’s book digitization project, researchers analyzed 107 words in texts from the period 1800–2008. They found that in the digital age, English (and other languages) add new words at a rate that is higher than that of any other analyzed time period.

However, the rate at which words are disappearing from our language (the death rate) is greater than the rate at which they are appearing (the birth rate). This has led the study’s authors to conclude that English is shrinking. And it is not the only language that is doing so.

The researchers also found that it takes an average of 40 years after a word enters a language for that word to become truly accepted as part of that language. Words that don’t enjoy enough usage tend to die.

This idea should come as no surprise to even casual observers of language. After all, the word trousers was once very popular in American English. These days, pants is far more common. In fact,  the change happened around 1970. Will trousers go the way of the dodo?


Will the word trousers die out? Only time will tell.

Proof That English Is Getting Smaller

The study’s authors cite röntgenogram as an example of word death.

Although the word röntgenogram is extinct, its more popular linguistic competitor, x-ray, is alive and well. (The röntgenogram gets its name from Wilhelm Röntgen, who won a Nobel Prize in 1901 for having produced and detected what he called “X-radiation.”)

The researchers speculate that the efficiency of the much shorter x-ray produced “fitness gains” over röntgenogram. In addition, English has become the dominant language in scientific publishing. For both these reasons, röntgenogram faded away.

If you don’t want to read the full Scientific Reports article, you can find  the abstract at

How Many Words Does the Average Person Know?

Figuring out average English vocabulary size is like trying to count the world’s animal species. At best, it’s a guess.

The average adult knows between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Now, remember how averages work: some people are above that range, while others are below that range.

To help you contextualize these numbers, consider that there are over 170,000 full entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. So if you’re an average adult, you don’t even know 20% of the words in the dictionary. (Ouch.)

If you liked this article, then check out how many languages are spoken in the United States or learn about a few English words that end in the letter q. (There aren’t too many!)

You can also read about a problem for speakers of rare languages: not having any digital content to read.

Last, here’s an article for the writers among you: use a process to write better content on the web.


Related Posts