Indefinite and fictitious numbers

"Zillion" redirects here. For other uses, see Zillion (disambiguation).

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] Such words designed to indicate large quantities can be called "indefinite hyperbolic numerals".[2]

General placeholder names

English has many words whose definition includes an indefinite quantity, such as "lots", "many", "several", "a lot", and "some". These placeholders can and often do have a generally equivalent numerical counterpart, e.g., "a couple" meaning two (2) or "a few" meaning approximately 3 to 8.[3] Other placeholders can quantify items by describing how many fit into an approximately-specified volume; e.g., "a handful" represents more peas than grapes.

Specific numbers used as indefinite

In various Middle Eastern traditions, the number 40 is used to express a large but unspecific number,[4][5] 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.[6]

In Latin, sescenti (literally 600) was used to mean a very large number, perhaps from the size of a Roman cohort.[7]

In Arabic, 1001 is used similarly, as in the The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (lit. "a thousand nights and one night").[5] Many modern English book titles use this convention as well: 1,001 Uses for ....

In Japanese, 八千, literally 8000, is used: 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,[8] rendered into Greek as μυριάδες, and to English myriad.[9] Similar usage is found in the East Asian or (lit. 10,000), and the South Asian lakh (lit. 100,000).[10]

In Chinese, 十萬八千里, literally 108,000 li, means a great distance.

Other specific numbers are occasionally used as indefinite as well. English does this with count nouns that refer to numbers: a dozen/dozens, a score/scores, a hundred/hundreds, and similarly thousand, million, billion. Unlike cardinal numbers, these can be pluralized, in which case they require of before the noun (millions of dollars, but five million dollars), and require the indefinite article "a" in the singular (a million letters (indefinite) but one million letters (definite)).


Umpteen, umteen, or umpty[11] is an unspecified but 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 much larger.

"Umpty" is first attested in 1905, in the expression "umpty-seven", implying that it is a multiple of ten.[12][13] Ump(ty) came from a verbalization of a dash in Morse code.[12]

"Umpteen", adding the ending -teen, as in "thirteen", is first attested in 1918,[14][11][15] and has become by far the most common form.[16]


Words with the suffix -illion (e.g., zillion,[17] gazillion,[18] kazillion and bajillion[19]) are often used as informal names for unspecified large numbers by analogy to names of large numbers such as million (106), billion (109) and trillion (1012). These words are intended to denote a number that is large enough to be unfathomable.

These terms are often used as hyperbole or for comic effect, or in loose conversation to present an unguessably large number. Since these are undefined, they have no mathematical validity and no accepted order.

The "-illion" concept is so well established that it is the basis of a joke, in which a speaker misunderstands the word Brazilian (a person 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][upper-alpha 1] gagillion,[24] gajillion,[25] godzillion,[26][upper-alpha 2] grillion,[27] hojillion,[28] jillion[29] kabillion,[30] kajillion,[31] katrillion,[32] killion,[22] robillion,[33] skillion,[34] squillion,[35] and umptillion.[36][upper-alpha 3]

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 jillionth time." Also, the suffix can be replaced with "-illionaire" to describe wealthy people.

These terms are sometimes used in technical jargon to represent some arbitrary yet common power of a base radix, typically when the number of trailing zeroes is not significant for the concept being discussed. For example, in computer architecture, if memory region 1 spans the hexadecimal range 20000000-23FFFFFF (in bytes) and memory region 2 spans the hexadecimal range 24000000-27FFFFFF, then it could be said that the base addresses of the memory regions are located at "20 bazillion" and "24 bazillion".

Sagan's number

Sagan's number is the number of stars in the observable universe. It is named in honor of Carl Sagan.[37] 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.

Sagan's number is to be distinguished from 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".[42][43]

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. Boston Globe, July 13, 2016: "The surprising history of indefinite hyperbolic numerals"
  3. "1 Peter 3:20". Bible Hub. Retrieved 8 April 2016. In it [=Noah's Ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water (New International Version)
  4. A.D. Alderson, Fahir İz, The Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary, Oxford, 1959, s.v. kırk: "Forty; used especially to denote a large indefinite number
  5. 1 2 "Biblical Criticism", The Classical Journal 36:71:83ff (March 1827) full text
  6. Oxford English Dictionary, 1st edition, s.v. 'forty' A.b.
  7. Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, s.v. sescenti
  8. Strong's Hebrew Lexicon
  9. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, s.v. 'myriad'
  10. Oxford English Dictionary 1st ed., s.v. 'lakh'
  11. 1 2 "Umpteen". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 14 April 2012. (available online to subscribers)
  12. 1 2 "Umpty". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 14 April 2012. (available online to subscribers)
  13. Warren Harding, quoted in Advertising & Selling 29:28-52:26 (1920)
  14. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000), 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  15. Umpteen, Merriam-Webster. Accessed 2014-06-29.
  16. Google nGrams comparison of umpteen, umteen, and umpty
  18. Included in the standard dictionary included with Microsoft Word word-processing software.
  19. Bates, Karen G. (2005). Plain Brown Wrapper. HarperCollins. p. 86. ISBN 0-380-80891-9. Well, yes, it was, and the rumor that there were seventy bajillion women to every man just wouldn't die...
  20. Christensen, Chris (2008). "How Many is a Brazillion?".
  21. Harrison, Colin (2001). Afterburn. St. Martin's Press. 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. 1 2 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!
  23. Cooke, Kaz (2003). Bun in the Oven. Ten Speed Press. 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. p. 114. ISBN 0-312-95984-2. 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. p. 98. ISBN 0-306-81318-1. 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. 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. p. 8. ISBN 0-7864-0975-4. 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.
  29. Partridge, Eric; Dalzell; Victor, Terry, eds. (2006). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. 2. Taylor & Francis. p. 1103. ISBN 0-415-25938-X.
  30. Hodgman, Ann (1999). Beat That!. Houghton Mifflin Cookbooks. p. 115. ISBN 0-395-97178-0. That's about all I remember, except for this salad and the ninety kabillion manicotti someone else brought.
  31. Steven Schragis and Rick Frishman (2006). 10 Clowns Don't Make a Circus. Adams Media. p. 122. ISBN 1-59337-555-7. 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.
  32. Howe, James (2003). Tales From the House of Bunnicula #4: Screaming Mummies of the Pharaoh's Tomb II. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. p. 2. ISBN 0-689-83954-5. 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.
  33. Hanneman, George (1988). The Creeping Game. The Times. p. 19. It was the robillionth time they had done it, but it was as fun as ever before.
  34. Kean, Rob (2000). The Pledge. Warner Books. p. 429. ISBN 0-446-60848-3. Sure enough, I found a skillion articles from about a dozen years ago, accounts of the events and aftermath of Cherry Plain.
  35. Pratchett, Terry (2002). Witches Abroad. HarperCollins. p. 146. ISBN 0-06-102061-3. And you owe me a million billion trillion zillion squillion dollars.
  36. Anthony, Piers (2002). How Precious Was That While. Tor/Forge. p. 121. ISBN 0-8125-7543-1. 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.
  37. Sizing up the Universe - Stars, Sand and Nucleons - Numericana
  38. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Balantine Books. p. 3. ISBN 0345331354.
  39. "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.
  40. "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.
  41. "Number Of Stars In The Universe Could Be 300 Sextillion, Triple The Amount Scientists Previously Thought: Study". Huffington Post. December 1, 2010. Archived from the original on 4 December 2010. Retrieved September 3, 2016.
  42. William Safire, ON LANGUAGE; Footprints on the Infobahn, New York Times, April 17, 1994
  43. Sagan at (definition from the Jargon File)
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