- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the cardinal number 88, between eighty-seven and eighty-nine
Chalk this one up to your list of words that are way more interesting than they look: in the standard English counting system, eighty-eight is the highest number name that doesn’t contain an N. Or, to put it another way, every number name after 88 is spelled with an N.
That might sound too bizarre to be true, but once you spot that everything that follows 88 must contain a nine, a ninety, a hundred, a thousand, or else some mind-boggling quantity ending in –illion, the truth behind this curious little spelling quirk becomes apparent.
There is, however, a problem: where does all this leave the googol?
Even just a few years ago, googol was a word obscure enough to warrant its own tweet on Haggard Hawks (and knowing what one was would once have netted you £1 million). But such is the popularity of trivia nowadays it’s almost become common knowledge that a 1 followed by 100 zeroes (10^100) is called a googol, while a 1 followed by a googol of zeroes (10^googol) is called a googolplex.
The word googol was famously coined by the 9-year-old nephew of US mathematician Edward Kasner in 1940. But more importantly here, it doesn’t contain a letter N. So surely that disproves our fact above about the number 88? Nice try, but no.
Note the fact here stipulates the standard English counting system. That doesn’t meant that googol isn’t a standard English word, because it absolutely is—as are gross, myriad, chiliad, and all the other noticeably N-less words for numbers and quantities that our language and dictionaries contain. (And no, discounting Indian-origin names like lakh and crore here does not make HH racist, FFS.)
What this means is that the googol, along with everything else here, isn’t included in the standard framework our language uses to form the names of our larger numbers. So we’re talking the standard English counting system—not the standard-English counting system.
What does all that mean? Well, leaving aside our somewhat mismatched numbers from 1 to 12, in English we tend to construct all our number names in a nice, neat, arithmetic, decimal way—beginning with our –teens, then continuing into matching sets of tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. This underlying framework plays out in such predictable and formalized a way that (mercifully) our dictionaries don’t need to list the individual name of every single number, but only give us the names of the milestones we need to construct them—like hundred, thousand, million, billion and trillion. Using these raw materials, we know that a number like 7,855,419,113 (the estimated population of the world at the time of writing this very sentence) would be read aloud as seven billion, eight hundred and fifty-five million, four hundred and nineteen thousands, one hundred and thirteen.
If you’re an American English speaker, of course, all those intrusive ands will be missed out when you read that number aloud. And nor is that the only difference between the standard counting systems of British and American English.
British English traditionally uses (and in some contexts, still does use) a so-called ‘long-form’ numbering system, based around factors of 1,000,000. In this somewhat old fashioned system, one billion is considered a million millions (hence the word billion itself derives from the Latin prefix bi–, implying that it once referred to ‘two’, or rather ‘twice’, one million).
But American English (and admittedly, now most of the English speaking world) uses a so-called ‘short-form’ counting system, in which large numbers increase by factors of 1,000; one billion in this short system is ultimately equal to 1,000 millions, not one million. For reasons of consistency, it is this short-form system that has now become international standard in our language—which is why the population of the world is typically given as seven billion, eight hundred million, not the relatively more complicated seven thousand eight hundred million.
SQUILLIONS AND ZILLIONS
Now that we have a standard system to conform to, then, we can start counting.
Following the rules of the short-form system’s incremental factors of 1,000, a 1 followed by six zeroes is a million, a 1 followed by nine zeroes is a billion, and a 1 followed by twelve zeroes is a trillion. Things get a little more unfamiliar after this point (not least because we seldom need to deal with such mind-boggling figures in everyday English), but a 1 followed by fifteen zeroes is a quadrillion; a 1 followed by eighteen zeroes is a quintillion; a 1 followed by twenty-one zeroes is a sextillion; and a 1 followed by twenty-four zeroes is a septillion.
If you’re noticing a familiar quad–, quin–, sexti–, septi– pattern here, then you’re already way ahead of us: next up would be an octillion, a nonillion, and a decillion.
Etymologically, each of these derives from the basic counting system of Latin. So if a billion (from bi–, implying two) is 1,000 multiplied by 1,000^2, then a trillion (from tri–, implying three) is 1,000 multiplied by 1,000^3, and a quadrillion (from quad–, implying four) is 1,000 multiplied by 1,000^4. And so this naming system continues, following the roots of the Latin number system, on and on into infinity.
If you’re not mathematically minded, of course, dealing with four-figure factors and multi-figure multiples like this can be bamboozling. So perhaps think of it like this: essentially, the name of each of these vast numbers is based on the number—in Latin—of trios of zeroes that would be placed after 1,000 in writing it out. So one septillion (derived from the Latin for seven, septem) is equal to 1,000 followed by seven sets of three zeroes: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. One decillion (from the Latin for ten, decem) is 1,000 followed by ten sets of three zeroes: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. And so on.
So where does all this leave the googol? Alas, nowhere to be seen.
In this standard system, a 1 followed by 99 zeroes—or rather 1,000 followed by 32 sets of three zeroes—would take its name from the Latin name for the number 32, duo et triginta (‘two and thirty’). Based on that, the number we need would be a duotrigintillion—which would make a 1 followed by 100 zeroes ten duotrigintillion, not a googol.
But remember, this applies only to our standard framework of –illions, and the factorial system of 1,000s that underpins it. Googol itself is still a perfectly acceptable word—as are all the others here. it’s just this our standard counting system doesn’t use it.