Q: What’s the story behind such fanciful numbers as “umpteen,” “zillion,” “jillion,” and “gazillion”?
A: When precision doesn’t matter, and exaggeration is allowed, it’s useful to have whimsical alternatives for large numbers. The linguist Stephen Chrisomalis calls these inventions “indefinite hyperbolic numerals.”
In fact, the earliest known examples we’ve seen for “umpteen” and “zillion” were discovered a couple of years ago by Chrisomalis, a linguistic anthropologist at Wayne State University.
In “Umpteen Reflections on Indefinite Hyperbolic Numerals,” a paper published in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech, Chrisomalis cites this 19th-century New Zealand example of “umpteen”:
“They are like you and me, and never trot round with a credit balance of more than about umteen pence.” (From an article in the Christchurch Press, Sept. 14, 1878.)
And here’s an American example with “umpteen,” spelled the usual way and used to mean a large number, not an indefinite small one:
“Increase acreage ‘umpteen’ per cent.” (From an article about wheat crop forecasts in a Minneapolis trade journal, Northwestern Miller, July 21, 1882.)
Chrisomalis’s first example for “zillion” is from a satirical article in a California newspaper: “They’re going to bring ’em over here—zillions of ’em.” (Oakland Tribune, Dec. 12, 1916.)
The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet caught up to these early sightings. Its oldest example of “zillion” is from 1944, and its first “umpteen” sighting is from 1918.
Chrisomalis says indefinite hyperbolic numerals like these emerged “principally in the period from 1880 to 1930, frequently in American contexts.”
His research suggests that “zillion” probably comes from African-American speech. It’s now “the most common indefinite hyperbolic numeral in English,” he says.
“Umpteen,” although first recorded in New Zealand in the 1870s, became a common American usage by the 1890s, according to Chrisomalis. (The similar-sounding “umpty,” recorded in both Australia and the US in 1886, represented a vague number rather than a large one.)
Here are some of the other hyperbolic words the author discusses, along with the earliest dates he’s found and possible origins:
“forty-leven” (1839), a combination of “forty” and “eleven,” was “associated with white, well-educated Northeastern writers of a Unitarian or Universalist bent”;
“squillion” (1878), US, associated with children’s speech;
“steen” (1882), now obsolete American college slang, modeled after “sixteen” but without that meaning;
“skillion” (1923), first recorded in Canada as a variant of “squillion” that quickly became more popular;
“jillion” (1926), associated with cowboy speech in rural and small-town Texas and surrounding Plains states;
From the 1930s onward, prefixes like “ba-” and “ga-” were added to “zillion” and “jillion” to make them seem even bigger: “bazillion” (1939), “umptillion” (1948), “kazillion” (1969), “gazillion” (1974), “bajillion” (1990).
Chrisomalis differentiates between hyperbolic numerals and what are known as “hyperbolic quantifiers,” words like “scads,” “oodles,” “heaps,” “wads,” and “slew.”
He also notes that even a definite number can be used hyperbolically, as in “I’ve told you a hundred times.” (The French, he points out, use the actual number 36, trente-six, hyperbolically to mean a large number. A Frenchman might say, “I’ve told you 36 times.”)
However, unlike definite numbers, “zillion” and “umpteen” can never have a literal meaning. And words like that, Chrisomalis writes, are “cross-linguistic” rarities—that is, they’re rare in other languages.
Two exceptions he points to are from the 1970s or later: “Spanish tropecientos (from tropel ‘mob, heap, mass’ + cientos ‘hundreds’) and Italian fantastilione (from fantastico+ ilione).”
English speakers, however, keep inventing new humongous numbers. In his paper Chrisomalis shares a few, including this one from Ian Frazier’s short story “The Killion” (New Yorker, Sept. 6, 1982):
“The killion, as every mathematician knows, is a number so big that it kills you.”
We’ll end with some definite, non-hyperbolic numerals. Here are the current meanings of some “-illion” words that are for real:
- million = one thousand thousands
- billion = one thousand millions
- trillion = one thousand billions
- quadrillion = one thousand trillions
- quintillion = one thousand quadrillions
From there, the numbers proceed to such stratospheric levels that we get nosebleeds just thinking about them.