Million-dollar hair? OK, sure — but what do you call the biggest numbers in existence?


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.

(While we’re at it, do you know why airplanes are named after numbers, like 747? The answer is much simpler than the explanation of “billion.”)

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.

Contrary to what you may have been told, infinity is not a number, it is a quality or concept: “the assumed limit of a sequence, series, etc., that increases without bound.”

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.

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