You’ve probably heard about the football player Troy Polamalu whose long locks are, as of today, insured for $1,000,000 dollars. The silly stunt is just the chance we need to talk big — bigger than a million. How big? Let’s see how big.
A “million” is literally Latin for “a great thousand” (mille is “thousand,” -ion is “largeness” or “greatness.”) A “billion” is literally “two or twice millions,” (bi- is “two”), but convention interprets the word to mean ”a thousand millions.” Ready for some messiness? There are two different meanings of a billion, the long and short scales. The simple answer is that the short scale predominates today, and the short scale version of a billion is one with nine zeros. A trillion has twelve.
Here’s where things become exciting. The so-called “standard dictionary numbers” are terms for numerals that go up to centillion, which is basically 1 followed by 303 zeros. Here’s a fun number: quattuordecillion, or 1 followed by 45 zeros.
At this point, the dictionary stops including numerals. You are now entering googol territory. The legend goes that mathematician Edward Kasner asked his nine-year-old son to think of the name for a very big number. His reply is now famous. A googol is equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros. A googolplex is 1 followed by a googol of zeros. Beyond that, we are in pretty abstract territory.
And with that, let’s return to something a little humbler, but no less interesting: What do the “twen” and “-ty” of twenty literally mean? Here’s the answer.