Millions Upon Millions


I was reminded recently of how I used to like to look at the Table of Numbers in the dictionary, which probably sounds boring. I was fascinated by all the names for really large numbers, quadrillions, quintillions, and all that. For some reason, it goes right from a vigintillion to a much larger centillion.

It’s certainly possible to fill in the gaps with other Latin prefixes, but I guess that’s unofficial. There was also a mention of “milliard,” a word I don’t think I’ve ever seen used outside that context. Apparently, in traditional British usage, a milliard is the same as an American billion, and a British billion the same as our trillion. That doesn’t mean a British billionaire needs to have ten to the twelfth pounds; Jim Ratcliffe’s assets are only about a fifth of that. That’s still more money than any human should reasonably have, but that’s a different topic. From what I’ve seen, the American billion is now standard in the United Kingdom as well. From what Wikipedia says, however, the long scale is older, with the earliest mentions of a bymillion and trimillion in French in the late fifteenth century. And it kind of makes more sense, as one billion is one million to the second power, one trillion one million to the third power, and so on. In the short scale, the names are basically artifacts, as a trillion, for instance, really has nothing to do with the number three. But it’s not like these huge numbers really come into everyday use that much; and in fields where they do, they tend to use scientific notation, which doesn’t require learning as many words.


I also remember learning about the googol and googolplex as a kid, although I don’t think I knew that’s how you spelled them, and the search engine called Google isn’t helping matters in that respect. Mathematician Edward Kasner’s nephew came up with the name “googol” for ten to the hundredth, and Kasner defined a googolplex as ten to the googolth. I have a memory of seeing something on TV where a guy has a googolplex written out on paper and unrolls it while walking, although I don’t recall what the show was. I also remember my sister deciding a “goobaplex” was some kind of imaginary candy. But anyway, a googol is considerably smaller than the previously coined centillion; it is, in fact, ten duotrigintillion. Avogadro’s Number, by the way, rounds to 602 sextillion. And ten to the 3003rd would be a millinillion.

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1 Response to Millions Upon Millions

  1. Large numbers make me dizzy, but…

    I just wanted to point out that I, too, have always enjoyed reading the appendices and charts of these natures in the back of the dictionary, too.

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