Thursday, November 12, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Growing Exponentially

I was going to do this one a while ago but never got around to it. But now I am! More numbers! Let’s see where the names come from.
Ten comes from the Old English ten, so we’re not looking at any major changes. It’s from the Proto Germanic tehun, from the Proto Indo European dekm-, which meant ten. Of course that’s a part of a lot of other numbers, some of which make sense, like deca-deci-, and -teen, but there are also a weird number of other words that you wouldn’t think it would be related to, like dean. Seriously, dean, as in the dean of a college. Why? Because it once meant the head of a group of ten. And dekm- is also the source for most of the other numbers we’re looking at today.

Hundred comes from the Old English hundred, so once again we’re not looking at anything crazy here. It’s from the Proto Germanic hunda-ratha, and the ratha- means reckoning or number, while the hunda- part is actually from hundam, which also meant hundred—hunda-ratha meant hundred number. It’s from the Proto Indo European km-tom, no I don’t know how to pronounce that even though I badly want to, and that word is from another, dkm-tom-. And that dkm- is from dekm-. We just kept dropping letters there. Seriously, first the E, which is a vowel, so you can still figure the word out, but then the D, and then between the PIE and Proto German the K became an H. What were they thinking?
Thousand comes from the Old English þusend, which is just thousand with a thorn in place of a th. It’s from the Proto Germanic thusundi, and beyond that, things get a little murky. It’s thought to be a mix of Proto Indo European roots, teue-, to swell, and our old friend dekm-, making the word something like “swollen-hundred”, I’m not kidding, that’s what the etymology dictionary translates it as. Basically, a swollen-hundred was a great multitude, in the same way we might hyperbolically say there are thousands of something to express that there’s uncountably a lot.
And now for a word that actually isn’t related to all of these. Well, kind of. Million has an actual time frame for its arrival, having shown up in the late fourteenth century as milioun. It’s from the Old French million, which is from the Italian millione, which figuratively meant a “great thousand”. See, in Italian, mille means a thousand, as it does in classical Latin. Because the Italians called a million a great thousand, we have million in English—as well as billion, trillion, and anything else we want to stick in front of -illion.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary


  1. Yay, thorn! My favorite defunct letter.

    Once upon a time, I read that forty was once used to mean "a lot". (As in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.) So, "swollen-hundred" doesn't sound so far-fetched to me.

  2. Swollen hundred. Great thousands.

  3. This is interesting.
    I find it funny when some people say 'cent per cent' for 100%


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