There are many variables to consider in arriving at an approximation (specific language, gender, profession, etc) of how many words the average person speaks in a lifetime, however it is safe to say, that whatever that number is, thanks to social media and email that encourages typing over speech, that number is dwindling at a steady pace. To date, there have been two individuals who have published their estimates that vary dramatically — by 7.1 million words, to be exact.
In 1984, British writer, actor, broadcaster, and self-confessed wordsmith and Scrabble fanatic, Gyles Brandreth, came up with one estimate: 860,341,500 words spoken in a lifetime. Brandreth was so confident of his estimate that he included it as the subtitle for his 1984 book, The Joy of Lex: How to Have Fun with 860,341,500 Words.
So how much is 860.3 million words? To place this number in perspective: in one lifetime, the average person speaks the equivalent of the entire text of the complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) more than 14.5 times! (The second edition of the OED contains about 59 million words, defining more than 301,100 words.) Put another way, the average person speaks the equivalent of the entire 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) 19.5 times! (The EB, with 33,000 pages, contains about 44 million words). Or put yet another way, the average person speaks the equivalent of the King James Bible (Old and New Testament) more than 1,110 times! (The King James Bible contains about 774,746 words.) Now that is a lot of talking! But, imagine if you are a politician and speak out of both sides of your mouth…
In 2005, Nick Watts, a British documentary filmmaker pondered this very same question, albeit with a different starting point. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph he explains the catalyst for his statistical odyssey: “I was thinking to myself how full a swimming pool would become if I tipped into it all the beer I drank in a lifetime.” Watts and his team of writers spent the next two years gathering statistics related to what the average person consumes and produces in a lifetime. The culmination of their work was the fascinating factoid-filled documentary The Human Footprint released in the UK in 2007. Watts’s research team arrived at a more conservative figure — and perhaps more accurate — than Brandreth’s estimate. According to Watts and his colleagues, the average person will speak 123,205,750 words in a life time, creating a 5-volume opus “filled with love, sadness, pathos and triumph.” Incidentally, that life would last 2,475,576,000 seconds. The research team also determined that the average person speaks 4,300 words per day (women generally speak more words per day than men) and that the average person has a vocabulary of 25,000 words.
For further reading: The Joy of Lex: How to Have Fun with 860,341,500 Words by Gyles Brandreth, Robson (1984, 2002)
The Word Book by Gyles Brandreth, Robson Books, (2001)