or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Why Not A Zillion?

Innumeracy is to numbers and math what illiteracy is to words and reading, and hardly anything seems more likely to spark a flare-up of innumeracy than the big numbers one million, one billion, and one trillion.

Here's the headline and the first two paragraphs from an AP wire story in the local birdcage liner, the Moncton Times & Transcript:

Oxford database hits one million words

LONDON(AP)--A massive language research database responsible for bringing words such as "podcast" and "celebutante" to the pages of the Oxford dictionaries has officially hit one billion words, say researchers at Oxford University Press.

Oxford University Press lexicographer Catherine Soanes said the database was not a collection of a billion different words, but of sentences and other examples of the usage and spelling.

Got that? The OED database is the contents of the dictionary; all the words defined, plus their definitions and etymologies, discussions of the words, and sentences showing their use through time. (This brief editorial piece has a little more information on the story, including the statement that "[T]he Oxford etymologists...note, 'The humble word "the", the commonest in the written language, accounts for 50 million of all the words in the corpus.'") The database doesn't define a million words, as the headline plainly implies, because there aren't even a million words in English, but contains, in toto, a billion words. Billion with a "b".

I know how this happened, because I've worked in the newspaper biz: someone had to write a headline at two in the morning. That's a sad sort of excuse, though. The word "million" doesn't even appear anywhere in the story, which means that whoever had to write the headline either 1) didn't even read the story or 2) doesn't know the difference between a million and a billion. Or, of course, both of the above.


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