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Fifty-Eleven, Forty-Eleven, and Other Hyperbolic Numbers

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Robin in Yuma, Arizona, asks about the origin of the expression fifty-eleven, which she grew up using to suggest “a large, indeterminate number.” The older and more common version is forty-eleven. Such words as fifty-eleven, forty-eleven, umpteen, and zillion are called indefinite hyperbolic numerals. Linguistic anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis of Wayne State University has researched these terms extensively. In the journal American Speech, he writes that the word zillion first flourished among African-Americans in the 1920s. In French, the actual number trente-six, or “36,” can be used in a similar way to denote a large, undetermined amount. This is part of a complete episode.

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