How Many Words in Ulysses?

July 16, 2023
David Sunnyside

When a work of literature is as monumental as Ulysses, it’s inevitable that some will try to understand it in ways that are impossible. The result is a sprawling, industrialized apparatus of Joyce criticism that can make the book seem inaccessible even to those who proclaim themselves Joyceans. But as Delaney has argued, we must remember to savour Joyce’s words rather than to angst over them or attempt to define them precisely.

One of the most famous passages in the book comes near the end, when Bloom and Stephen are walking toward the railway bridge as they head to be married. This image, of a father and son on their way to a marriage, seems at odds with the frenetic, ecstatic prose that has preceded it. But Joyce himself explained that he put so many enigmas and puzzles in the book that it would “keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

Another question that arises about the novel is its vocabulary: the number of words is often quoted as 1,200, although other sources claim as high as 3,000. This article will take a different approach to the question by presenting a word count that is based on the number of distinct words in the text and by comparing it to other dictionaries to give a sense of the frequency of each word in the Ulysses lexicon.

It’s worth noting that the same technique was used in a similar analysis of Finnegan’s Wake, which supposedly requires a working knowledge of eight other languages to read. (That is not strictly true—Finnegan’s Wake is actually more difficult than Ulysses, but only because it uses more obscure words.)

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
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