Nautilus

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

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