I would cut off my right hand if you find it.” That was the guarantee retired Columbia history professor 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 were discussed, in such quantities. Armin Mester, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says, “Thousand, one can imagine that there was a use for that, in terms of amount of money. A thousand head of cattle,” he offers. “But not million.”
In millennia past, number words (like one, two, thousand, and million) seem to have been coined progressively rather than all at once. Though the runway of numeracy is infinite, number words, like words in general, were…