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Canadian bubble artist Fan Yang performs during "The Gazillion Bubble Show" in Beijing, July 31, 2011. (JASON LEE/JASON LEE / REUTERS)
Canadian bubble artist Fan Yang performs during "The Gazillion Bubble Show" in Beijing, July 31, 2011. (JASON LEE/JASON LEE / REUTERS)

Warren Clements: Word Play

A zillion quadzillion ways to say a lot Add to ...

It would be lovely to have a bazillion dollars or a gazillion. You wouldn’t even need to count the bills, since neither bazillion nor gazillion is a real number. They are just indefinite expressions of awe at limitless amounts of things.

Anthony Ciccone, brother of the pop singer Madonna, used one of the words this week after a reporter observed that his sister has a lot of money while Ciccone has none. Ciccone replied: “You think I haven’t answered this kind of question a bazillion times? Why my sister is a multibazillionaire and I’m homeless on the street?” Material girl, meet immaterial boy.

More from Warren Clements

Bazillion was in print by 1939, when an advertisement in The New York Times said, “I have 46 bazillion holes in my shirt to cool me off.” Curiously, although bazillion would appear to be derived from zillion, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t find its first print citation of zillion until 1944, in a story by Damon Runyon: “I love him a zillion dollars’ worth.”

Zillion is a variation on million and billion, but why does it start with “z”? One source suggests that, because “z” is the final letter of the alphabet, it represents the furthest point, whether highest (zillion) or lowest (zilch and zip, which mean zero).

Gazillion arrived long after bazillion. It was first spotted in the Washington Post in 1978, in a reference to “the unseen gazillions who will watch the tape played back later that night.” Yet gazillionaire appeared seven years before bazillionaire, which was first sighted in 1987 in the Toronto Star. Singer Carole Pope said, referring to the United States, “Every time I go there I meet all these songwriters who I’ve worshipped, and they’re all bazillionaires.”

The prefixes ba and ga are similar to ca, ker and ka, as in ka-ching, the sound of an active cash register. The prefix ker (kerplunk, kerthump) emerged by the 1830s as a way of conveying, by its sound, the sensation of something heavy falling to earth.

But the origin of ker and its kin may go beyond onomatopoeia. George Cohen, quoted in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, speculated that ker, ka and the others may derive from the German past-participle prefix ge, as in gegangen, went. Or perhaps they derive from the Gaelic car, meaning a twist or turn. Or maybe, as Cohen preferred to think, they were related to the emphasis some people put on the opening letters of crash and crunch: kerr-ash, kerr-unch.

Then we have skillions and squillions. The OED isn’t familiar with skillion, except in its Australian sense of a lean-to, but it finds squillion as early as 1943, when Zora Neale Hurston used it in an article in The American Mercury. “The deep blue sea ... was a pearly blue, like 10 squillion big pearl jewels dissolved in running gold.”

In American Slang, Robert L. Chapman helpfully adds jillion, gadzillion, gillion, kajillion and, impressively, zillion quadzillion, for those who feel no amount is large enough if there aren’t at least two words to describe it. An article in the Edmonton Journal last year said (wryly) that the revenue expected from a certain casino licence was “estimated at a gadzillion dollars.” Coincidentally, “by gad” is precisely the expression one might use if confronted by a zillion dollars, at least if one were British, sported a handlebar mustache and favoured a monocle.

Or consider the scad. It began life in American English in the 1800s as a synonym for the dollar, but within no time the plural, scads, was describing a colossal sum of money. “And the pay?” Eric Linklater wrote in 1931 in Juan in America, using a variant spelling. “Skads of dough. Oodles and oodles of money.”

Oh, right. Forgot oodles. In English, there are a gazillion ways to say gazillion.

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