Quadrillion, quintillion, sextillion, and other huge numbers
Million is a word you probably hear every day, referring to lots of things, ranging from city populations to your odds of winning the lottery. It also appears in several colloquial phrases, such as one in a million and feeling like a million bucks (or pounds). Next up is billion, which makes fewer cameos in our everyday lives, though it still appears in discussions on finance and world population. (Although the British and American definitions of billion used to differ, it is now widely understood to mean ‘a thousand million’.) Above that, trillion is reserved mostly for discussion of countries’ GDP and other macroeconomic topics.
Going even higher, we find ourselves in math and science territory, where quadrillion is used to count things like photons, microorganisms, and BTUs. Higher still, quintillion is used to refer to the mass of the earth (in tons) and the number of molecules in the human brain. As I said, above trillion we’re very much in science and math territory.
So exactly how often does quintillion come up? By looking at data in the Oxford English Corpus, we can come up with a pretty good idea. Containing 2.5 billion printed English words, which are drawn from a wide variety of sources across the Internet, the corpus allows us to see roughly how often these words are used:
Unsurprisingly, million leads the way, followed by billion, before dropping off with trillion into not-often visited territory. The disparity between trillion and the final two numbers, quadrillion and quintillion, in fact, is so great that they barely register on the bar graph.
What about the other side of quintillion? Those numbers, in ascending order, are sextillion, septillion, octillion, nonillion, and decillion. At that point, the numbers are so high that they are impossible for most to wrap their heads around. So how does quintillion fare among its brethren of the upper numerical reaches?
Not too badly, it turns out! These numbers are simply so large that their use is fairly infrequent, especially above sextillion, after which you see example sentences like this one, which appears on OxfordDictionaries.com: “Naturally occurring wormholes, if they exist at all, are likely to be extremely small, about 10 septillion times smaller than a typical atom.” Basically, you are in wormhole country from there on out.
But beside those mind-boggling real numbers, there is a group of ‘invented’ big numbers, often used for hyperbole and hilarity. Those ‘numbers’ include zillion, gazillion, jillion, bajillion, bazillion, and gajillion. They all depend upon the combining form –illion, to give the effect of sounding like an astronomically large number. How does quintillion compare?
Quintillion fares a little better in this company, beating out gajillion, even if overwhelmed by the more popular zillion.