Folk Numbers


Mathematics is the most rigorous branch of knowledge. But leave it to people — and language — to make even maths folksy. (Maths is the British informal term for mathematics. Isn’t it nice? It preserves the final ‘s’, unlike the American short form, math.) Certainly languages provide names for rigorous, card-carrying numbers like the cardinals, e.g., million, billion, trillion, quadrillion, and so on. But look who snuck in there as well: zillion, gazillion, bazillion and probably a few others. Why a zillion? Why not a pillion? And is there a rough ordering of size going on, or not? Is a bazillion bucks more than a gazillion? They’re probably both bigger than a zillion, but is that just “prefix prejudice” entering the picture here? 🙂

We also have the precise quantities for groups: pair, sextet, dozen, score. And even when things get vaguer, some of the terms still maintain an air of numeral dignity: multitude, numerous, plenitude, abundance, profusion. Then it gets casual fast: lots, bunches, scads and oodles. So, can oodles of dollars be more than a bazillion dollars?

Bazillion and its ilk are phony cardinal numbers (they also have their fake ordinal cousins, as in bazillionth, gazillionth, etc. “I’ve told you for the gazillionth time to save your files!”), whereas oodles and scads are slangy quantifiers, which most languages possess, well, scads of.

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One Response to Folk Numbers

  1. bbear says:

    Another is eleventy-seven, as in an angry and informative rant on why there are eleventy-seven reality tv channels, or I’ve seen this video eleventy-seven times. Some people want to interpret eleventy-seven as meaning 117, but I think the general view is that it just means a lot (though not as much as a zillion). Anyway, I found both examples while googling to confirm my recollection that it was the great Al Capp (creator of L’il Abner) who coined the term, though I didn’t get anywhere with that…

    Speaking of googling, readers should know if they don’t already that a googol–not a Google–is an actual number equal to ten to the one-hundredth power. That’s really a lot! 😉 Even bigger is a googolplex, which is ten to the googol power. These numbers sound whimsical because they were named by a child, the nine-year-old nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner…

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