Indefinite and fictitious numbers

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Many languages have words expressing indefinite and fictitious numbers—inexact terms of indefinite size, used for comic effect, for exaggeration, as placeholder names, or when precision is unnecessary or undesirable. One technical term for such words is "non-numerical vague quantifier".[1]

General placeholder names

English has many words whose definition includes an indefinite quantity, such as "lots", "many", "several", and "some". These placeholders can and often do have a generally equivalent numeral counterpart, e.g., "a couple" meaning two (2) or "a few" meaning approximately 3 to 6. Other placeholders can quantify items by describing how many fit into something that could change based on size, e.g., "a handful" represents more peanuts than apples. Larger quantities can be described by "half-dozen" (six units), "dozen(s)" (twelve units per dozen), and less commonly "tens", or "scores" (twenty units per score). Still larger quantities are described as hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, etc.

A number of other words and phrases are used to convey the idea in informal or humorous ways, such as slang terms like "metric shitload",[2] "fuckton",[3] "gobs of" (e.g. "gobs of jobs" career fair[4]), "n-something" used especially to indicate someone's age within a decade, e.g. "twentysomething" and similar terms used most often to indicate someone's age within a decade, and phrases like "to the nth degree".

Specific numbers used as indefinite

In various Middle Eastern traditions, the number 40 is used to express a large but unspecific number,[5][6] as in the Hebrew Bible's "forty days and forty nights", the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, the story Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, etc. This usage is sometimes found in English as well.[7]

In Latin, sescenti (literally 600) was used to mean a very large number, perhaps from the size of a Roman cohort.[8]

In Arabic, 1001 is used similarly, as in the The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (lit. "a thousand nights and one night").[6] Many modern English book titles use this convention as well: 1,001 Uses for ....

In Japanese, 八千 means 8000, while for example 八千草 (lit. 8000 herbs) means a variety of herbs and 八千代 ( lit. 8000 generations) means eternity.

The number 10,000 is used to express an even larger approximate number, as in Hebrew רבבה rebâbâh,[9] rendered into Greek as μυριάδες, and to English myriad.[10] Similar usage is found in the East Asian or (lit. 10,000), and the South Asian lakh (lit. 100,000).[11]

Other specific numbers are occasionally used as indefinite as well, such as English dozen and score.[6]


Umpteen is a term for an unspecified but reasonably large number, used in a humorous fashion or to imply that it is not worth the effort to pin down the actual figure. Despite the -teen ending, which would seem to indicate that it lies between 12 and 20, umpteen can be used in ways implying it is much larger than that—if it ever could be pinned down.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the word is derived from the slang ump(ty), a dash in Morse code (of imitative origin), plus -teen.[12]

The Oxford English Dictionary reports its use in 1918, and offers the alternative spelling umteen. It agrees that the derivation is from umpty, whose etymology is given as "A fanciful verbal repr. of the dash (—) in Morse code."[13][14]

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives its etymology as a "blend of umpty (such and such) and -teen," but also gives 1918 as the year of its first use.[15]


Words with the suffix "-illion", most commonly zillion,[16] gazillion,[17] bajillion,[18] and jillion[19] and are often used as fictitious names for an unspecified, large number by analogy to names of large numbers such as million, billion and trillion. Their size is dependent upon the context, but can typically be considered large enough to be unfathomable.

These terms are often used as hyperbole or for comic effect, or in loose, unconfined conversation to present an un-guessably large number. Since these are undefined, they have no mathematical validity and no accepted order, since none is necessarily larger or smaller than any of the others.

The "-illion" concept is so well established that it is the basis of a joke, in which a speaker misunderstands the word Brazilian (being from the nation of Brazil) as an enormous number called "brazillion".[20]

Many similar words are used, such as bazillion,[21] dillion,[22] gadzillion,[23] gagillion,[24] gajillion,[25] godzillion,[26] grillion,[27] hojillion,[28] kabillion,[29] kajillion,[30] katrillion,[31] killion,[22] robillion,[32] skillion,[33] squillion,[16] and umptillion.[34] Also, the suffix can be replaced with "-illionaire" to describe wealthy people.

These words can be transformed into ordinal numbers or fractions by the usual pattern of appending the suffix -th, e.g., "I asked her for the zillionth time."

Sagan's number

Sagan's number is the number of stars in the observable universe. It is named in honor of Carl Sagan.[35] This number is reasonably well defined, because it is known what stars are and what the observable universe is, but its value is highly uncertain.

  • In 1980, Carl Sagan himself estimated it to be 10 sextillion in short scale (1022).[36]
  • In 2003, it was estimated to be 70 sextillion (7 × 1022).[37][38]
  • In 2010, it was estimated to be 300 sextillion (3 × 1023).[39]

Sagan's number is unrelated to the sagan unit or the humorous use of the term "sagan" to denote any large quantity—specifically, any number in the billions, due to Sagan's association with the phrase "billions and billions".[40][41]

See also


  1. "Bags of Talent, a Touch of Panic, and a Bit of Luck: The Case of Non-Numerical Vague Quantifiers" from Linguista Pragensia, Nov. 2, 2010
  2. metric shitload. Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. Richard A. Spears. Fourth Edition. 2007. McGraw Hill.
  3. Wiktionary:Citations:fuckton
  4. NM Gobs of Jobs
  5. A.D. Alderson, Fahir İz, The Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary, Oxford, 1959, s.v. kırk: "Forty; used especially to denote a large indefinite number
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "Biblical Criticism", The Classical Journal 36:71:83ff (March 1827) full text
  7. Oxford English Dictionary, 1st edition, s.v. 'forty' A.b.
  8. Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, s.v. sescenti
  9. Strong's Hebrew Lexicon
  10. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, s.v. 'myriad'
  11. Oxford English Dictionary 1st ed., s.v. 'lakh'
  12. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000), 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  13. "Umpteen". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 14 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (available online to subscribers)
  14. "Umpty". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 14 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (available online to subscribers)
  15. Umpteen, Merriam-Webster. Accessed 2014-06-29.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Pratchett, Terry (2002). Witches Abroad. HarperCollins.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-06-102061-3. p. 146: "And you owe me a million billion trillion zillion squillion dollars."
  17. Included in the standard dictionary included with Microsoft Word word-processing software.
  18. Bates, Karen G. (2005). Plain Brown Wrapper. HarperCollins.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-380-80891-9. p. 86: "Well, yes, it was, and the rumor that there were seventy bajillion women to every man just wouldn't die..."
  19. p. 1103, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, vol. 2, edited by Eric Partridge, Tom Dalzell, and Terry Victor, Taylor & Francis, 2006, ISBN 0-415-25938-X.
  20. Christensen, Chris (2008). "How Many is a Brazillion?".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Harrison, Colin (2001). Afterburn. St. Martin's Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-312-97870-7. p. 278: "I wouldn't sleep with him in a bazillion years, but I'm not scared of him."
  22. 22.0 22.1 Resop, Jay (1 April 2004). "Neglected Character Deathmatch: Zadok vs Birdo vs Geno". Neglected Mario Characters. SMBHQ. Retrieved 23 May 2008. Duh nah timez a billion million zillion trillion killion dillion!<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Cooke, Kaz (2003). Bun in the Oven. Ten Speed Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 1-58008-531-8. p. 3: "...and then the editor asked a gadzillion questions..."
  24. Lawrence, Martha C. (1996). Murder in Scorpio. St. Martin's Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-312-95984-2. p. 114: "The brochures basically told the same story Stan had given me: Pacific Properties owned a gagillion places that generated a gagillion dollars."
  25. Southworth, Samuel A. (2004). U.S. Armed Forces Arsenal: A Guide to Modern Combat Hardware. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81318-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 98: "The expectation was that the Soviets would roll a gajillion of their ever-improving but still basic tanks across the landscape..."
  26. Franzen, Jonathan (2001). Strong Motion. Picador.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-312-42051-X. p. 395: "She believes there's a zillion gallons of oil and a godzillion cubic meters of natural gas inside the earth, beginning at a depth of about four miles, and no anvil-headed senior research chemist with a crew cut and stinky breath is going to tell her it isn't so."
  27. Kelley, Brent (2001). The Pastime in Turbulence: Interviews with Baseball Players of the 1940s. McFarland and Company.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-7864-0975-4. p. 8: "After that, even expansion and grillion-dollar salaries could not harm it."
  28. Holkins, Jerry; Krahulik, Mike (2001-06-22). "Magic: It's What's For Dinner!". Penny Arcade.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Hodgman, Ann (1999). Beat That!. Houghton Mifflin Cookbooks.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-395-97178-0. p. 115: "That's about all I remember, except for this salad and the ninety kabillion manicotti someone else brought."
  30. Steven Schragis and Rick Frishman (2006). 10 Clowns Don't Make a Circus. Adams Media.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 1-59337-555-7. p. 122: "You are not going to sell a kajillion of anything just because it's the coolest little gizmo you ever saw or because your Uncle Ernie said you would."
  31. Howe, James (2003). Tales From the House of Bunnicula #4: Screaming Mummies of the Pharaoh's Tomb II. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-689-83954-5 p.2 "He [Uncle Harold] has been writing for a katrillion years and his books have sold a katrillion copies, even if he has gotten some stinko reviews."
  32. Hanneman, George (1988). The Creeping Game. The Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 19 "It was the robillionth time they had done it, but it was as fun as ever before."
  33. Kean, Rob (2000). The Pledge. Warner Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-446-60848-3. p. 429: "Sure enough, I found a skillion articles from about a dozen years ago, accounts of the events and aftermath of Cherry Plain."
  34. Anthony, Piers (2002). How Precious Was That While. Tor/Forge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> ISBN 0-8125-7543-1. p. 121: "Your best place, geographically, to bridge across the river is surrounded by Hell's Bells Bog, so deep it would take fifteen umptillion tons of special fill to stabilize it, putting you over your budget."
  35. Sizing up the Universe - Stars, Sand and Nucleons - Numericana
  36. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Balantine Books. p. 3. ISBN 0345331354.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. "Star survey reaches 70 sextillion: And that's only the stars we can actually see". Sydney, Australia: CNN Science. July 23, 2003. Retrieved October 27, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. "STAR COUNT: ANU ASTRONOMER MAKES BEST YET". Sydney, Australia: Australian National University Media Releases. July 17, 2003. Archived from the original on 9 March 2011. Retrieved October 27, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. "Number Of Stars In The Universe Could Be 300 Sextillion, Triple The Amount Scientists Previously Thought: Study". Huffington Post. December 1, 2010. Retrieved April 17, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. William Safire, ON LANGUAGE; Footprints on the Infobahn, New York Times, April 17, 1994
  41. Sagan at (definition from the Jargon File)