Indefinite and fictitious numbers
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". Such words designed to indicate large quantities can be called "indefinite hyperbolic numerals".
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. 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, as in the Hebrew Bible's "forty days and forty nights". This usage is sometimes found in English as well.
In Arabic, 1001 is used similarly, as in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (lit. "a thousand nights and one night"). 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, rendered into Greek as μυριάδες, and to English myriad. Similar usage is found in the East Asian 萬 or 万 (lit. 10,000), and the South Asian lakh (lit. 100,000).
In Swedish, femtioelva, (fifty-eleven)
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 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.
Words with the suffix -illion (e.g., zillion, gazillion,) 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. Many similar words ending in "-illion" are used, such as jillion. 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.", or "-illionaire" to describe wealthy people.
Sagan's number is the number of stars in the observable universe. It is named in honor of Carl Sagan. 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).
- In 2003, it was estimated to be 70 sextillion (7 × 1022).
- In 2010, it was estimated to be 300 sextillion (3 × 1023).
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 of at least four billion, due to Sagan's association with the phrase "billions and billions".
- Hair's breadth
- List of unusual units of measurement
- List of humorous units of measurement
- 1000 percent
- Power of 10
- Names of large numbers
- Mathematical joke
- Inherently funny word
- Wild number
- "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 Archived 2012-07-31 at Archive.is
- Boston Globe, July 13, 2016: "The surprising history of indefinite hyperbolic numerals"
- "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)
- A.D. Alderson, Fahir İz, The Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary, Oxford, 1959, s.v. kırk: "Forty; used especially to denote a large indefinite number
- "Biblical Criticism", The Classical Journal 36:71:83ff (March 1827) full text
- Michael David Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context, Oxford, 2008, p. 116
- Levias, Caspar (1905). "Numbers and numerals". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. 9. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. p. 349. Retrieved 2017-04-27. "Forty: Stands in the Bible for a generation (e.g., the forty years of wandering in the desert), hence for any period of time the exact duration of which is unknown (comp. Gen. vii. 4, 12, 17; viii. 6; Ex. xxiv. 18, xxxiv. 28; Deut. ix. 9, 11, 18; x. 10; I Sam. xvii. 16; I Kings xix. 8; Jonah iii. 4). In later literature forty is commonly used as a round number (comp. Giṭ. 39b, 40a; Soṭah 34a; Yer. Ta'an. iv. 8; et al.)."
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1st edition, s.v. 'forty' A.b.
- Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, s.v. sescenti
- Strong's Hebrew Lexicon
- Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, s.v. 'myriad'
- Oxford English Dictionary 1st ed., s.v. 'lakh'
- "Umpteen". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 14 April 2012. (available online to subscribers)
- "Umpty". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 14 April 2012. (available online to subscribers)
- Warren Harding, quoted in Advertising & Selling 29:28-52:26 (1920)
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000), 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Umpteen, Merriam-Webster. Accessed 2014-06-29.
- Google nGrams comparison of umpteen, umteen, and umpty
- Included in the standard dictionary included with Microsoft Word word-processing software.
- 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.
- Sizing up the Universe - Stars, Sand and Nucleons - Numericana
- Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Balantine Books. p. 3. ISBN 0345331354.
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.
- William Safire, ON LANGUAGE; Footprints on the Infobahn, New York Times, April 17, 1994
- Sagan at dictionary.reference.com (definition from the Jargon File)