Interrogate sources. Observe the matrix around the fossil. Be your nose a pointer for your brain.


This is not a gloat or a slag. The OED is the giant shoulders we ride astride who write etymologies in English. That there are mistakes in it means only that we and it are of the same world. The lessons for the rest of us are: Interrogate sources. Observe the matrix around the fossil. Be your nose a pointer for your brain.

A correspondent noted that etymonline had a 1942 first date for zillion. He pointed out that the OED had a citation back to 1901 from the Lima (Ohio) Times-Democrat. It read "The amount of their credit is over four zillion francs."

Seeking to reduplicate that result in the digital libraries pushed zillion back to 1927, maybe 1922 (if you count billion-rillion-zillion). But nothing turned up earlier for zillion in books, magazines, or newspapers. Except that 1901 use in Ohio. At the head of this piece on the left is what appears to be the OED's citation, clipped from the Lima newspaper via

That looks suspicious. All the other early citations I found for zillion were in a humorous context. In gag pieces and short stories it's a word that might pop out of the mouth of a youth or a not-very-bright person in a flight of exaggeration.

But this looks like a straight paragraph. It stands by itself on the page, not in a story; it's filler, the sort of squib a small paper in those decades would use to square off its columns on the page.

And it doesn't seem intended for humor. The thrift of the French masses seems to have been proverbial then, at least in U.S. newspapers. In short, as evidence, it smells. The word is definitely there on the page, but it's not clear that it was intended. You can suspect it is a typesetter's error that slipped through proof-reading. The word meant may well have been million or billion.

If it was filler text or boilerplate, chances are it ran in more than one paper in that season. I searched the archives for other keywords from the paragraph, not including zillion.

And there was the same filler graph, in the Mansfield (Ohio) News of Aug. 7, 1901, more than a week before Lima ran it. With one slightly different wording (to for of), and billion francs in place of zillion francs. You can see it at the top of this page on the right. The same text also ran in the Marietta (Ohio) Union-Leader of Aug. 9, 1901, except that at the end that paper printed the figure (or a figure—where did they get it?): 4,900,000,000, which fits into "over four billion." The same paragraph appears to have been copied in the same form (numerals) in the Sandusky Star-Journal of Sept. 9, 1901, jammed in under a short stack of want-ads. It's three-to-one against zillion being attested in Ohio in 1901.

 The better you know the past, the more you see, the better you read. Snuff enough of its air and you'll know when something smells there, then, and what stinks in 1901 might not register today. Which means you have to want to know the past like a citizen. Theory won't get you that, nor will carefully guided tours, however many you take. It's uncomfortable, unredeemable, but you have to go there. Like any power worth getting, you'll never get it all, but the more you have the surer you'll step.

It's also perhaps worth noting that the -b- key and the -z- key sit right next to one another on the 1895 Linotype board. Histories of the Lima Times-Democrat note that it was "progressive in its use of technology" and among the first local papers to use Linotype machines in place of the hand-set type process.


Latest stories