Googling googols and other fun with words on National Poetry Day

I’ve been googling googols. I like to play with words and it gives me a ridiculous amount of pleasure to write “googling googols” in an otherwise sensible newspaper.

My googol-googling began because I was thinking about my weekly column. I found myself wondering how columnists came to be called columnists. Most newspapers are arranged in columns, sure, but of all the contributors, why were columnists named after part of the layout?

I have this notion that a newspaper editor once said, “Write me something interesting to fill that bit of column space.” The result proved popular, so the editor got the writer to do it again. Appearing in the same part of the newspaper each week, in the same column, the writer eventually became known as a columnist.

Seems reasonable? I am making it up, of course. If anyone has a better theory – or preferably, some actual knowledge – let me know. I did try to google the word ‘columnist’ to see where it originated but all I could find were examples of other columnists far more famous than me.

That’s where I grew conveniently disinterested and started to think about the word google instead.

Google is a noun that we have turned into a verb. We google stuff on Google. We also skype each other on Skype. I wonder if technology is giving us more verbs? It’s quite acceptable to text a text message or to email an email but no one ever said, “I’m going to letter a letter.”

Anyway, while googling Google I learned that the two guys who built it started off with a search engine that they called Backrub. Seriously. They called it Backrub because it searched the ‘back links’ of the network.

Imagine if Backrub had stuck around as the name for what is now the world’s most ubiquitous web search. Today we would get to backrub Scarlett Johansson.

Denying us that giggly fun with a verb, they eventually landed on the name Google by playing with the word googol. While the word googol may look like a spelling error, it’s actually a very large number.

A googol is a 1 followed by 100 zeros. Thanks to the exponential power of freaky maths, it’s impossible to comprehend how big this number really is. Try this on for size: a googol is larger than the number of atoms in the observable universe.

Yes, apparently the total number of atoms in the universe only adds up to a 1 followed by a measly 80 zeros. (I don’t know who counted all the atoms in the universe but I’ll take their word for it.)

Another fun fact about the number googol is that it was named by a 9 year old. In 1938 a mathematician called Edward Kasner asked his nephew what he thought a good name might be for this extraordinarily large number with its 100 zeros. The reply was “a googol”. For lack of a better option, I suppose, Kasner went with it.

In my googol-googling adventure, I discovered that it would also be technically correct to call a googol “ten duotrigintillion”. To me, that sounds like the name Kasner might have got if he’d asked a 6 year old instead of a 9 year old.

Once you have a number as mind-bogglingly big as a googol, the next logical step is to make it even bigger. Behold the googolplex: a 1 followed by a googol zeros. The googolplex is so enormous that no piece of paper in the universe is big enough to write it down in full.

Which is all to say that words are fascinating and fun. Go out and find some words today. Google them, backrub them, enjoy them. Happy National Poetry Day.


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 22 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.