The English language has 26 letters, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), those 26 letters have been arranged in various combinations to make up approximately 600,000 words. We often highlight esoteric, hard-to-pronounce, or just plain weird words for the Word of the Day at Word Genius. But what about the most commonly used words?
The OED has done some data analysis on its word lists and produced calculations for the frequency at which words are used, starting in 1970. It delineates frequency into bands (groups) numbered one through eight, with eight being the highest frequency. The scale is logarithmic, which means words in band eight are used about 10 times more frequently than words in band seven, and so on and so forth. With that in mind, here are some of the most frequently used “X,” “Y,” and “Z” words in modern English.
This fantastical word might be recognizable as the title of the 1980 roller-skating cult classic movie starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, the name of Citizen Kane’s mansion in the eponymous 1941 film, or perhaps from Samuel Coleridge’s 1816 poem Kubla Khan: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree.” (Fun fact: Coleridge’s poem was where the term “pleasure dome” was coined.)
“Xanadu” is a poetic reinterpretation of Shang-tu, the Mongol city founded by Kublai Khan, and it has become shorthand to describe any place of “dreamlike magnificence and luxury” — an Eden, of sorts. According to the OED, it belongs in frequency band four, which means it occurs between 0.1 and 1.0 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These words are marked by greater specificity than those in bands five through eight, but can be used unproblematically in fiction or journalism.
“Xylem” is a botany term, a collective word for the cells, vessels, and fibers that form the harder portion of the fibrovascular tissue in plants. It comes from the Greek ξύλον, meaning “wood,” and like “Xanadu,” is in frequency band four.
“Xerox” is what we call a “genericized trademark” or “proprietary eponym” — that is, when a brand name becomes so popular or significant that it’s adopted into regular usage. Other examples would be Band-Aid, Kleenex, and Scotch Tape. “Xerox” entered the lexicon when the machine was invented in the early 1950s, but it has since come to be used as a catchall verb and noun to denote any photocopy. It’s in frequency band three, meaning it occurs between 0.01 and 0.1 times per million words in typical usage; it wouldn’t be commonly found in a general text like a novel or newspaper, but it’s not overly obscure either.
“Year” is the second-most frequently used “Y” noun in the OED, behind “you.” It’s in frequency band seven, meaning it occurs between 100 and 1,000 times per million words in typical usage; many of these are main semantic words, which form the substance of everyday speech and writing. Mainly used as “an interval or division of time having its basis in the period of the earth’s revolution around the sun,” “year” has many roots in Old English and Germanic languages.
“Youth” means “the state or quality of being young, especially as associated with vigor, freshness, or immaturity.” It comes from the Old English geoguð, meaning “young, young people, junior warriors; young of cattle.” As a frequency-band-six word, it occurs between 10 and 100 times per million in typical modern English. Band six includes a wide range of descriptive vocabulary and many nouns referring to specific objects, entities, processes, and ideas.
“Yellow” has several different usages, mainly as an adjective or verb. All usages refer to the color intermediate between orange and green on the color spectrum — as seen in egg yolks, lemons, daffodils, etc. But “yellow” can also be used as a verb in reference to someone or something turning yellow, such as the collar of a shirt getting dirty. It has roots in the Middle English yelwe and the Proto-Germanic gelwaz, which come from the Greek khlōros (“greenish yellow”) and the Latin helvus (“yellowish”). Like “youth,” this is a frequency-band-six word.
The OED lists “zone” as the most frequently used “Z” word in the entire English language. It has many usages and connotations, but in general it denotes a region or tract of land in the world, especially in relation to climate. However, it can also be more figurative. This frequency-band-six word appeared in English in the late 14th century from the Latin zona, meaning “geographical belt, celestial zone.”
Just behind “zone” in order of frequent usage, “zero” is “the figure used to denote the absence of quantity.” “Zero” means “none”: “the figure which stands for naught in Arabic notation.” While it comes from the Arabic root sifr, meaning “cipher,” the English word comes most directly from the French zéro or the Italian zero (which in turn come from the medieval Latin zephirum). “Zero” is also in frequency band six.
“Zeal” refers to “passion, fervor, or vehemence of feeling.” As a frequency-band-five word, it occurs between one and 10 times per million in typical usage — these words begin to shift away from the everyday language found in bands six through eight, and focus more on literate vocabulary associated with educated discourse. “Zeal” is borrowed from the Late Latin zelus, meaning “zeal, emulation,” which in turn comes from the Greek zēlos, meaning “ardor, eager rivalry, emulation.”
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