The Word “Million” Didn’t Exist Until We Needed It

I would cut off my right hand if you find it.” That was the guarantee retired Columbia history lecturer Jens Ulff-Møller made that there was no word for “million” in Old English, a medieval predecessor of the language you’re currently reading.

Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.Myrabella/Wikicommons

Some Anglo-Saxon writers understood the idea of a million, and they had a term for it: a “thousand thousand.” But, unlike the speakers of most modern languages, they had no single word for that quantity.

Why would that concise word be absent in earlier language? It seems that there was no word for million in Old English simply because its speakers had no great use for it. In the Anglo-Saxon world, no object was made, and few

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus13 min readSociety
Why We Keep Playing the Lottery: Blind to the mathematical odds, we fall to the marketing gods.
To grasp how unlikely it was for Gloria C. MacKenzie, an 84-year-old Florida widow, to have won the $590 million Powerball lottery in 2013, Robert Williams, a professor of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, offers this scenar
Nautilus3 min readPsychology
Presenting the Scrabble Luck Calculator: Are you as good at Scrabble as you think?
Scrabble is a volatile game. It’s not uncommon for underdogs to make tournament upsets. Why? Luck. It plays a large role in Scrabble, and efforts to remove it, by changing tile values, for instance, have mostly been in vain. Still, Scrabble skills ma
Nautilus14 min read
WeChat Is Watching: Living in China with the app that knows everything about me.
It’s 9 a.m. on a typical morning in Chengdu and I’m awakened by the sound of my phone alarm. The phone is in my study, connected to my bedroom by sliding doors. I turn off the alarm, pick up my phone, and, like millions of people in China, the first