More on "Googol" and "Googolplex"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Dec 28 11:39:33 UTC 2008

Jeff Miller's web site on words of mathematics gives more information about the coinage of "googol" and "googolplex."  He dates the Scripta Mathematica usage as 1938, not 1937:

GOOGOL and GOOGOLPLEX are found in Edward Kasner, "New Names in Mathematics," Scripta Mathematica. 5: 5-14, January 1938 (unseen).

Googol and googolplex appear on Jan. 31, 1938, in the "Science Today" column in the Dunkirk (N. Y.) Evening Observer. The article mentions the "amusing article in Scripta Mathematica."

Googol and googolplex are found in March 1938 in The Mathematics Teacher: "The following examples are of mathematical terms coined by Prof. Kasner himself: turbine, polygenic functions, parhexagon, hyper-radical or ultra-radical, googol and googolplex. A googol is defined as 10100. A googolplex is 10googol, which is 1010100." [This quotation is part of a review of the January 1938 article above.]

Googol and googolplex were coined by Milton Sirotta, nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner (1878-1955), according to Mathematics and the Imagination (1940) by Kasner and James R. Newman:

Words of wisdom are spoken by children at least as often as by scientists. The name "googol" was invented by a child (Dr. Kasner's nine-year-old nephew) who was asked to think up a name for a very big number, namely, 1 with a hundred zeros after it. He was very certain that this number was not infinite, and therefore equally certain that it had to have a name. At the same time that he suggested "googol" he gave a name for a still larger number: "Googolplex." A googolplex is much larger than a googol, but is still finite, as the inventor of the name was quick to point out.

This quotation was taken from the article "New Names for Old" found in The World of Mathematics (1956) by Newman. The article is identified as an excerpt from Mathematics and the Imagination.

The Merriam Webster dictionaries identify the nine-year-old nephew as Milton Sirotta, "b. about 1929." A Wikipedia article gives the dates for Milton Sirotta as (c. 1911-1980), and says he coined the term around 1920. The German Wikipedia gives Milton's dates as (1929 to ? about 1980). The Social Security death index shows one person named Milton Sirotta. He was born on Mar. 8, 1911, and died in Feb. 1981, with his last residence in Mount Vernon, N. Y.

Merriam-Webster dictionaries pronounce googol with a secondary stress on the second syllable. Thus it is pronounced differently from the name of the Internet company Google, although the Internet company name is a misspelling of googol.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                                            Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and        YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS
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