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The surprising history of indefinite hyperbolic numerals

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Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan recently boasted that his team is a “zillion times” ahead of last year’s Bills. A New York Post piece on Detroit-style pizza quoted Emily Hyland as saying, “If people aren’t all right with this, there’s a jillion other pizza places to choose from.” A Wall Street Journal article on Donald Trump referred to “umpty-million upscale voters.” No matter the context, it’s hard to resist the pleasures of what linguists call indefinite hyperbolic numerals — let’s call them IHN.

It turns out these words are more than just random, childish coinages. As Wayne State University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis discusses in the latest issue of linguistics journal American Speech, these words are older than previously believed, and they originated in distinct communities. Like so many words, IHNs have a deeper history than suspected: They go beyond random wordplay and express changes in American society in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Chrisomalis had been studying number systems and numerology for 15 years, but two events in the summer of 2009 drew his attention to words like jillion. First, while doing ethnographic research in Detroit, he realized that some 12-to-18-year-old African-Americans were using zillion in a surprisingly specific and consistent way — meaning quadrillion. Secondly, his 4-year-old son was playing with language and came up with this string of inventiveness: “Million, billion, zillion, fillion, illion, willion, heffalumpillion. Also an Italian and a dallion and a fallion and a nallion. And an aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallion.” This synchronicity inspired Chrisomalis, as he said in a phone interview, to poke around in the history of such words to see if they were just child’s play or something more.

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Chrisomalis divides this colorful vocabulary into major and minor terms. Major terms rhyme with million, like the oldest IHN, squillion, and the most popular, zillion. Lexicographers had thought zillion was a coinage of novelist Damon Runyon in 1944, but it turns out Runyon merely helped spread a word that had been around for decades. Chrisomalis has traced the word back to at least 1916. Besides proving that zillion is older than previously suspected, Chrisomalis has shown that it has a specific original context. Zillion was used predominantly in African-American settings at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Early uses include 1920s articles by Billy Tucker in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper.

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Jillion had a parallel journey. The OED’s earliest example was from 1942, but Chrisomalis has traced it back to 1926 and the very earliest uses are from Texas. A 1928 letter in the Miami News is very revealing about the word’s origins, as poet Stephen Cochran Singleton wrote: “. . . anybody could count a million; a jillion meant more than could be counted. I reckon so. I had not been in Texas long enough to argue with a cowboy, especially one who seemed to be so up on mathematics.” Chrisomalis found that jillion was used in Texas and the Plains states around the same time zillion was catching on among African-Americans in cities. Though the words appear interchangeable, neither was a random coinage of children. What’s more, they both were used by distinct communities before becoming common American slang.

On the other end of the IHN spectrum, the minor terms, though just as indefinite as zillion and jillion, sound smaller. The oldest such term is now rarely used — forty-leven. Steen (an abbreviation of 16 that lacks a fixed meaning) was once popular in collegiate slang, just as zillion and jillion spread in their social groups. Umpteen and umpty are still used today and share an unusual origin for this type of word. They were first found in New Zealand and Australia, respectively. Their most common variation these days is umpteenth, which is popular in the phrase the umpteenth time. You rarely see terms such as umpty-steen and umpty-ump any more, although you do see examples of the IHN Chrisomalis singles out as his favorite: umptillion, which combines the minor and major types.

The existence and use of major and minor IHNs show that indefinite doesn’t mean meaningless. As Chrisomalis says, “Everyone will agree that umpteen is smaller than a zillion” even though neither word has any specific numerical meaning. Most people will also agree that a bazillion is more than a zillion, maybe for the same reason kaboom sounds like a bigger explosion than boom. In the nonmetric system of IHN, ka-, ga-, and ba- are all capable of taking a major IHN up to eleven — or even eleventy-leven, another older, minor IHN.

The tendency to hyperbolize numerically isn’t limited to words such as umpteen, as you know if you’ve ever said, “I’ve told you a thousand times!” Numbers we usually think of as stable and fixed can also vary, especially across the Atlantic. Since the 1600s, nonillion has equaled 10 to the 54th power — in England. In America, it’s meant 10 to the 30th power. Probably because both numbers are hard to fathom, nonillion has also been used in exaggerations. Centillion, decillion, quadrillion, quintillion, and sextillion have had similarly differing meanings. Even the word billion doesn’t have a singular meaning — in the United States, it means a thousand millions, but in England it means a million millions.

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This difference between American and English numerology is probably one factor in why these words thrived here. American English was more fertile ground for such numbers since we count from million to billion to trillion, while in Britain, the same numbers have been represented by million, milliard, and billion — an irregular progression. Additionally, Chrisomalis thinks the development of these words around the end of 19th century had to do with economic forces. As America became a major commercial hub with increasing talk about economics, all numbers were being used more frequently and by people with high social status. Indefinite hyperbolic numerals satirized such grandiose financial talk, much as Internet jokes pop the bubble of corporate and political pretensions today.

Chrisomalis said it’s important to remember that these words are probably even older than his latest findings, which are all from text sources, and that we may never know precisely who coined them. It’s very likely zillion and the rest began in speech, where lexical innovations have traditionally started, though that’s flip-flopped in the days of Twitter and endless online discourse. But whatever year zillion and jillion originated, they percolated in specific, American social contexts before spreading widely. Like people, even the silliest words tend to have a home.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.