In a post today celebrating a political victory against homeopathy in the UK, Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy used the phrase “Myriads of…”, which drew the following remark from a commenter:

[pedantry]Myriad is an adjective, not a noun. So that’s “myriad tests”, not “myriads of tests”.[/pedantry]

Yeah, sure, language is a fluid, evolving thing. But if someone doesn’t resist change at least a bit, one generation won’t understand the next.

Just don’t get me started on “enormity”.

The funny thing is that “myriads of” is a perfectly correct usage, which stems from the fact that a myriad is a number, namely 104, which stems from ancient Greek, which used a myriad system of large numbers as opposed to the thousand system that we use today in the West.  Hence, a myriad equals ten thousand.

However, the ancient Greeks were not the only people to use a myriad system for large numbers.  The same is also true in China, where a myriad is denoted by 万, rather than 十千, as it would be if the Chinese used a thousand system like us in the West. Furthermore, rather than going

While ultimately this is an issue of nomenclature, it should be noted that this nomenclature has a real impact on how we think about numbers.  There is little reason to think that 109 is more special a number than 108 (other than being ten times bigger), and yet a billion has a greater air of simplicity than a hundred million when thought of in English or any other language that uses a thousand system for large numbers. When I was in China last summer, it took me a while to think of 10亿 as a natural way to denote one billion, even though I knew rationally that the system was just as valid.

So next time you see a large number, remember that it can be organized in myriads rather than thousands.  You may think of a trillion as 1,000,000,000,000, but there are many others in the world who see it as 1,0000,0000,0000.

Here is a quick guide to Chinese numerals for various powers of ten up to a myriad myriad (108):











About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
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