It's easy to feel like a Mensa member when you're discussing politics with that weird relative over Thanksgiving dinner. Then it feels like you don't know any words at all when you're forced to make small talk with a co-worker at a forced social function. But how many words do you actually know?
An expansive new study published by Frontiers in Psychology has taken on that impossible task. The researchers set out to figure just how many words the average person knows and discovered by age 20 you know around 42,000 words. As you age, you gain about one new word every two days, meaning that by age 60 you've acquired an additional 6,000 words.
"Our research got a huge push when a television station in the Netherlands asked us to organize a nationwide study on vocabulary knowledge," says lead researcher Professor Marc Brysbaert of Ghent University in Belgium. "The test we developed was featured on TV and, in the first weekend, over 300 thousand Dutch speakers had done it."
The study was done by volunteers online and quickly became so popular that the researchers developed versions in English and Spanish. It gave the team an unprecedented amount of data to work with.
Users were asked whether or not the word shown to them on the screen was real or not. 100 words were shown, with 70 of them being real and another 30 being random word-like assemblages. The words were selected from a list of 62,000 words compiled by the researchers. That means just because the OED has included YOLO and clickbait doesn't necessarily mean they're included here. So, you can say you know 42,002 if you want.
Compiling the list themselves made it not subject to copyright restrictions and gave them the ability to expand the research and share the list with other researchers.
The ramifications of the findings are significant. "In Dutch, we have seen that this explains a lot about word processing times. People respond much faster to words known by all people than to words known by 95% of the population, even if the words used with the same frequency," says Brysbaert. "We are convinced that word prevalence will become an important variable in word recognition research."
The data could help researchers better understand the spread of language, how language is acquired, and how new languages are learned. It will also help you feel superior to your fellow man when you spend the next two weeks coursing a dictionary to figure out exactly how many words you know.