Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

An English Learner’s Lexical and Locutionary List

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with somewhere around half a billion native speakers, and up to 2 billion total speakers. It also happens to be the largest language, in terms of the size of its vocabulary. There is no accurate or standardized method to calculate the total number of individual ‘semantic units’ in the language, but many reputable sources place the number somewhere at or exceeding 1 million words. So how did a relatively minor West Germanic language (the only living relative of this branch is Frisian, spoken mostly in northern Netherlands) ascend to such rarified heights? The story of English is interesting, and well-described in a number of books that you can consult on your own for abundant history and information (anything by David Crystal, John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Henry Hitchens’ The Secret Life of Words, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue is fun light reading). In short, a Germanic language influenced by Welsh, Old Norse, French, Latin, and spread through the British and American empires to the rest of the world, where it continues to grow each year. 

A couple of my favorite examples of grammatical borrowings are two strange formations found only in Welsh and English: the auxiliary ‘do’ verb for questions and negatives (Where do you live?; I don’t know), and the progressive present tense as the default present tense (“I am eating; not: “I eat”, like in almost every other language). Anyway, most of the grammatical features, syntax, semantics, etc., are more interesting to linguists; ‘normal’ people are generally more interested by words. ‘Vocabulary’ (Latin vocabularius) and ‘lexicon’ (Greek lexikon) both have the same etymological meaning of ‘words’, which first came from the verb ‘to speak’ in both examples. Given that there are so many words in English, and so many speakers (and readers), perhaps it would be interesting to know how many words the average speaker knows. Surely it is impossible for anyone to reach even a quarter of the supposed million-word threshold, especially considering that a great percentage of those are technical and specialized words or jargon.

There is an interesting project on this website called Test Your Vocabulary, which gives an estimate of your total English vocabulary. It sorts the results by age, and obviously native speakers (~30,000) generally average at least three times as many words as non-natives (~10,000). I was informed that my total was 38,500, though I admit that the methodology seems to allow for quite a bit of arbitrariness in these figures. The important thing is that people respect their language and do not take it for granted. With access to such a rich language as English, and it’s equally rich literary heritage, how could anyone ever stop attempting to learn and use new words? This should be especially true of the hordes of non-native speakers (who outnumber natives at least 3-1), who must work even harder just to catch up. Unfortunately, it seems like many people become somewhat fossilized at a certain point, feeling no incentive or necessity to improve something so fundamental as every-day language. Instead of something always being ‘good’, for example, why not search for more nuance, variety, or even elegance (scrupulous, adroit, or felicitous, to name three)? Without further ado, I will give a short starter list of some words that I find appealing, interesting, or just aesthetically-pleasing– all of which have the potential to spice up a conversation:

  1. inveterate – long-established and unlikely to change (“an inveterate smoker”)
  2. perilous – dangerous
  3. antediluvian – ridiculously old (another good word here is ‘primeval’)
  4. saturnine – melancholy, morose, mercurial
  5. vainglory – excessive vanity
  6. polymath – person of wide-ranged learning (can we agree to use this in place of “Renaissance man”?)
  7. jejune – naïve, simplistic
  8. autochthon – original or indigenous inhabitant of a place
  9. perspicacity – keen insight and sharp understanding of things
  10. recalcitrant – obstinate and uncooperative (“Israelis and Palestinians both maintain unapologetically recalcitrant positions”)
  11. solecism – a grammatical mistake, or a breach of good manners
  12. recondite – obscure, abstruse, or esoteric
  13. avuncular – kind and friendly toward a younger or less experienced person (like an uncle)
  14. calumny – slander
  15. numinous – a transcendent, seemingly-divine quality that arouses mystery and wonder
  16. unreconstructed – unreconciled with current political movements (“he’s still an unreconstructed communist”)
  17. ineluctable – inescapable
  18. ethereal – delicate and light in an almost otherworldly way (“she has an ethereal voice”)
  19. skulduggery – unscrupulous trickery (“Wall Street banks amass untold $$$ through nefarious skulduggery”)
  20. donnybrook – a heated argument or fight (that could possibly lead to ‘fisticuffs’)
That should get you started on your own journey (either real or rhetorical). Enjoy, and let’s do this again sometime.

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5 thoughts on “An English Learner’s Lexical and Locutionary List

  1. fozzy daddy on said:

    hi son,
    to quote mrs. malaprop, its a doggey dog world. a lot of the words i know are swear words, i a rarely use them. i like your posts…they are very interesting. i hate seeing the texting thing because people shorten the words and insert numbers into them…i h8 that. love, dad


  2. I guess you just reach a point were you have the feeling you can express everything you want and therefore stop learning new words. The other problem is that at least I usually learn words on the go, while reading/watching movies and the vocabulary in most books is very limited as it is (even more) in everyday situations. For example I only recently learned the word “badger”, a word every native speaker certainly knows, but when do you talk about those animals?^^
    Problem with the words you posted is, as great as they are, that many people won’t know them and one usually refrains from using words other people don’t know. It’s just(/can be seen as) a bit pretentious. This “Look how smart I’m, I know words you have never even heard of.”
    So you stick with words everybody knows and because almost everybody does this, noone learns new words. Cirlce thing.^^
    From the twenty words above I knew five, but more from Latin/Greek and as loanwords in the German language. Don’t think I came across any of them in the English language except ethereal and autochthon. Anyway, they are nice.^^
    Got 24000 words in the test. I’m quite pleased, although I could have gotten more, if I had gone with “I have a pretty good idea what it means” and less if I had chosen to take only words where I know the exact definition. So probably quite inaccurate. Still fun though.


    • don’t sell yourself short, phil–for a non-native English speaker, your total is quite exceptional. if you had ever watched any melodramatic courtroom dramas, you would have known that the defendant always raises an objection with the judge for the prosecutor’s “badgering” the witness. also, one man’s ‘pretentious’ is another man’s learned, well-spoken, etc.


  3. Dave,

    You’ve started a great dialogue here, I hope you keep it going, and growing. Although
    as a product of the liberal arts education system it’s difficult to avoid, practically,
    functioning and assessing as a so-called “fox,” it’s precisely the infinite levels of
    complexity to the “fox’s” world that make “hedgehog” thinking and aesthetics so
    appealing, regardless (or because) of their being (inevitably) oversimplified.

    Seeing the world as an infinitely complicated series of ultimately unknowable factors
    that compete with and influence each other make action difficult. But hasty action
    without taking all contributing factors into account in a measured way leads, often,
    to deeply flawed or one-sided results. Things like war, or shortsighted policy, that
    have as many or more negative side-effects than the hoped-for goal, assuming that
    the goal is something the actors even achieve. I don’t remember where I read this,
    recently, but someone was writing pretty intelligently about unforseen consequences,
    and WWI, and made the provocative claim that if America had stayed out of WWI in
    1917, Czarist Russia might have held on, France probably would’ve folded, and WWII
    with all of its awful excesses would not have transpired–or at least not how we saw it
    unfold. From that perspective, our decision to enter wasn’t an act of us saving Europe
    from tyranny, but condemning Europe to an even worse tyranny, and Russia to the
    bootheel of totalitarianism.

    I guess it feels like there’s an inherent hubris to “hedgehog” world views, but it’s
    always more appealing than the sly, too-clever processes of the “fox.” Even though
    civilization depends much more on the latter than the former.

    I’m ACAPing, final sign-out 19 December. Hope all’s well.


  4. that’s great news adrian. your post-realism hyper-structuralist approach is really a breath a fresh air in a veritable quagmire of ennui.


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