To read more about and listen to this episode, visit theallusionist.org/zillions.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, bury language in sand at the beach.
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On with the show.
HZ: One. Two. Three. Four...
...Seventy-two. Seventy-three. Seventy-four. Seventy-five...
...One hundred and seventy-eight, one hundred and seventy-nine - one hundred and eighty!
Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine...
...445 trillion 76 - Where am I? How many zeros now?
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: I think actually most speakers of English above trillion get extremely extremely vague and don't really know what is going on up there.
HZ: Oh ok, thanks for making me feel better about myself.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: My name is Stephen Chrisomalis and I'm a linguistic anthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan.
HZ: And when we do get a bit lost up among the big numbers, rather than using a specific like quadrillion or quattuorvigintillion (that has 75 zeros behind it!), we might use a word that suggests a really big number, such as zillion, jillion or squillion. These are known as indefinite hyperbolic numerals.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Indefinite hyperbolic numerals are words that have the form of numerals; they act like numerals; but as their name would suggest, they're indefinite. They don't have a definite numerical reference, and they're hyperbolic. In other words, whatever they are, however big they are, they're really big.
HZ: Well. Not all of them are really big.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: The smallest indefinite hyperbolic numerals are words like umpteen and umpty and umptysteen and and fortyleven, and these are sort of big, indefinite, but we still have a sense that these are quite small because of the morphemes -ty and -teen.
HZ: Those words behave like the real number words, so we deduce that they refer to similar quantities.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: This suggests that there may be less than a hundred because on the model of fifteen or 70, we imagine that umpty is big, but it's probably not a thousand. Then above that, you have the numerals like zillion and jillion and squillion and those are clearly bigger than a million because most of us know what a million is and we know that everything less than a million has some different form, but very very big.
HZ: Then, if a quantity is bigger than very very big, you can embiggen your indefinite hyperbolic numeral by adding an intensifier.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: The intensifiers are ka- and ga- and ba-. So if I were to ask, "Which is bigger: a zillion or a bazillion?" almost all English speakers will say a bazillion is definitely bigger than a zillion. So you have this peculiar case where you have two indefinite hyperbolic numerals, neither one of which has a specific numerical meaning, but everyone would agree that one is larger than the other.
HZ: We do use the real numbers hyperbolically too - outside of economics and astrophysics, how often do people say “billions” and actually mean it?
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: And in fact we do this all the time. You say, you know, something like, "Oh if I've told you once I've told you a thousand times." Well, that's a hyperbolic numeral of course. You haven't really told the person a thousand times.
HZ: But, as there is a non-zero possibility that we did tell the person a thousand times, it probably keeps things less confusing that we do have these words that we definitely can’t mistake for a real number. Even though words like zillion look like the real numbers.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: We call these 'productive morphemes', using the model of million and billion to create new words.
To explain why we have so many of these illion words: you have to have a model before you can have a pattern. So for instance, if we just had the word ‘million’, then there's no reason to have zillion or jillion or gazillion or squillion or any of these things. So if there's just one, there's no pattern. But once you have two, million and billion, in your vocabulary, then you can start to see a pattern emerging and speakers of a language can pick up on that pattern and then use it productively. So it was really around the late 19th century and especially in the early 20th century when the word billion started to become more common in both British and American English, but especially in American English, and that's because billion in American English is smaller than billion in British English.
HZ: Well, it used to be - in 1974 the British prime minister Harold Wilson stated that to avoid confusion, Britain would go with the the short scale of numbering, the American definition of billion, a thousand million - for which, in English English, there used to be the term ‘milliard’, while billion referred to a million million - the long scale of numbering, which is in use in many countries, as is the word ‘milliard’. Although actually the size of billion has flipped back and forth between a thousand million or a million million since the French mathematician Nicholas Chuquet used it in an article in 1484 - bi meaning two, million as in million, but the two referred to the number of times you’d have to say million - million million - rather than meaning two million as in double million.
In 1690 the philosopher John Locke suggested that the English language should also use billion to mean a million million. However. Not long later, in France, the definition of billion changed from a million million to a thousand million - probably because there was more frequent need for a term for that number than for a million million. French influence on American culture in the early 19th century led to the short billion catching on there. But in 1948, France reverted to the long billion.
Over the course of the Allusionist, there have been umpteen instances of having to reconcile oneself to how words don't really have concrete meanings; we assume we're in tacit agreement with the other language users that we're interpreting them with a similar meaning, but really it's all subjective. But a number can mean different things to different speakers? IS THERE NOTHING WE CAN RELY ON? Please hold me...
In the case of billion, I wonder whether its meaning has been so flexible because it's only fairly recently that a billion of anything was something you’d have to get your head round.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Right. Absolutely - and of course one of the things that we should think about is the reason that billion and trillion became part of the numerical lexicon was that they were needed for the first time, that for the first time you really did have billions and trillions of real things in the world, whether that was dollars or people. People are aware that there are actually very real big numbers out there. They know that there are trillion dollar debts and multibillion dollar bank accounts. And these real numbers are the scaffolding that allow the indefinite hyperbolic numerals to flourish.
HZ: So then came the big indefinite hyperbolic numerals - the -illion ones.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: The earliest was squillion. Squillion was 1878.
HZ: And the period from then till around 1930 or so was a boom time for indefinite hyperbolic numerals.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: The best explanation I have is that the nineteenth century is a period in which increasingly education - primary education - in arithmetic was becoming more and more common. You get an environment where people are learning numerals, but they're also learning a sort of meta-level rule which is that numerals are a sign of education. Being an educated person requires that if you can assign a number to something, you really ought to do that; you really ought to count things, it's important to count things. It’s important to count people in the census. It's important to count goods and services, because this is the sort of growth of the industrial capitalist economy. And so I really see the growth of these numerals as a product of an environment, a linguistic environment, where references to numbers were expected and socially valued. Then of course we start to play with things. That's what we do with language.
Looking into these words, I find that they're not just childish alterations of consonants; they're not just random alterations; but rather that many of these words emerged in distinct contexts in specific speech communities.
HZ: For example ‘zillion’, which made its earliest known appearance in writing in 1916. And then in the following couple of decades -
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: - zillion became almost exclusively used in African-American English. Something like 75 percent of the zillions prior to World War II are found in African-American newspapers and magazines. For instance, some of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance were using this word 'zillion' in otherwise quite erudite publications. This wasn't just a representation of some sort of slang speech. This was actually being used in the literate - highly literate - written tradition of African-American newspapers and magazines as an indefinite hyperbolic numeral.
But in those communities they only used zillion; they didn't use jillion, they didn't use squillion, they didn't use any of the other indefinite hyperbolic numerals; and that level of conventionality suggests that this is really a word that had entered a lexicon of a speech community. This wasn't just a random thing that one person did, because of course it happened dozens of times over a 20- or 30-year span.
HZ: Around the same time, another of the now familiar -illion words was catching on elsewhere in the USA.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Jillion - we think of it as interchangeable with zillion. But jillion actually very very clearly emerged in the mid to late 1920s in Texas. This is the southern plains states and Texas English - jillion almost exclusively occurs there, starting in the 1920s; and we can actually see it spread out from Texas to neighboring states like Oklahoma and New Mexico and then up a little bit farther north to Kansas and Nebraska. I've looked through hundreds and hundreds of newspapers trying to find instances of the word jillion and they almost exclusively occur in this narrow geographical area. And so we can actually see it spreading out sort of year by year or every few years. It gets a little more spread out to to a larger geographic area. In that area there are essentially no instances of other numbers like like zillion - you don't find zillion in Texas English.
So this is for me pretty good evidence that these both originate from the same motivation, which is to take the million billion pattern and extend it a little further. But the fact that one occurs largely in African-American contexts and the other is occurring largely in the English of white Texas newspapers. That tells us that these are emerging within these specific communities, and they spread like any word would spread, through use, through being shared and being encountered and people picked them up. And that basically continues right up until World War II.
HZ: And then what happens?
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Well, two things happen. Just before the start of the war, 1938, 1939, the American author Damon Runyon began using both zillion and jillion in his publications, without any distinction that these were being used by different communities.
HZ: Lexicographers previously thought Damon Runyon coined ‘zillion’ and ‘jillion’, but the words were already in currency.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: So Damon Runyon was an extraordinarily inventive writer and he was an extraordinarily widely read writer in the 1930s. His work was published and reprinted in hundreds of newspapers, and so all of a sudden in the late 1930s you find both of these words appearing in his publications. And he was really part of neither one of these communities and had basically just picked them up and started using them in an undifferentiated way.
The other thing that goes on is, World War II happens. War, as terrible as it is, has a very notable linguistic effect, a very well-known effect, which it brings together people from all throughout the world or all throughout a country together, almost arbitrarily into units. And so you have a lot of linguistic sharing that goes on during wartime.
HZ: In the past few years, Stephen has noticed a new development in indefinite hyperbolic numerals, specifically ‘zillion’.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: As an anthropologist, I do some work with mathematics enrichment program here in Detroit called The Math Corps and I started to hear some of the students use the word 'zillion', which is sort of one of the classic prototypical indefinite hyperbolic numerals, to use it in a way that I thought was a bit odd, which is to use it in a definite way right above trillion, as a sort of replacement for what we would in North America say as ‘quadrillion’. But they seemed to be using it in a systematic way, to go the next highest numeral above trillion: million, billion, trillion, zillion.
HZ: Indefinite shifted to definite - quite often, number words do the opposite.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: So for instance if we think about the English word myriad: myriad comes from the Greek myrios and so has had in classical Greek two meanings. The first was 10,000. And the second was sort of countless or infinite. So myrios is both a really big number kind, of indefinite like like a zillion. But it also has a definite reference.
HZ: I suppose another example would be decimate because there was a specific mathematical meaning that is usually used in a more metaphorical sense.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Yes, although really only - oh, I don't want to insult your fine listeners. You'll get a lot of mail if I tell you that. Only pedantic people would insist that decimate means to destroy exactly one tenth.
HZ: Oh, sweet innocent Stephen.
HZ: Do you think that is any problem - maybe a subconscious problem or behavioral problem - in us using language hyperbolically for rhetorical effect rather than trying to be exact?
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: No, I think actually quite the opposite. I think we have in every language a set of pragmatic resources. In other words, we have a set of linguistic resources that let us get things done. And so the real question we ought to be asking is, what do people want to do with indefinite hyperbolic numerals? And there are many many cases where either a number is so large that we don't know what its actual quantity is, or where our goal is not to be exact. So when I use a number like a zillion, I do it exactly with the intention of creating that effect of sort of overawing an audience or overwhelming an audience with some sort of a sense of great magnitude.
HZ: Hyperbole: all of the impact with none of the obligation to provide correct data.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: If I were to say billions where the actual number is trillions, that actually is more deceptive in my view. If I say “billions” where what I really mean is trillions, or when I say “trillions” and it's actually billions, that leads to people misunderstanding. Because those are definite numerals that have a definite reference. But if I say zillions, I'm immediately signaling to my audience this is really big but don't really worry too much about exactly how big. I just want to create that effect. The meaning of these words is carried not in their specific numerical reference but in a sort of emotional or cognitive effect that they have on you to really be awed or to be impressed at the size of of something. I don't think you see many nuclear physicists or astronomers talking about zillions of anything because in that context it's not appropriate. These are playful words and they're being used in contexts that are largely understood as as playful.
HZ: I wish I had known this before I filled in my tax return.
Stephen Chrisomalis runs the website The Phrontistery, where he has been collecting rare words and writing about language since 1996. Find it at phrontistery.info - that’s with a ph not an f. I’ll also link to it at theallusionist.org/zillions.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick. Come and see us perform live next month at the London Podcast Festival. Tickets are on sale at kingsplace.co.uk/radiotopia. You can find me online - facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow - and pay a home visit to theallusionist.org.