With Google officially celebrating its 18th birthday this week, it’s a word that’s become part of our everyday vocabulary, both as a proper noun and a verb. Why ‘Google’ though? For such a reputable site that’s now officially in its adult years, it seems a bit of a babyish name, doesn’t it?
Appropriately for a site that’s all about high quantities and information, Google is named after a number. A ‘googol’ (pronounced in the same way as the search engine) is the name given to the number 10 to the power of 100, or one followed by a hundred zeros. This emphasis on zeros has always played a big part in Google’s branding and identity. In fact, if you Google something that returns more than 10 pages of results, you’ll notice that the logo at the bottom of the page changes from Google to Goooooooooogle, with all 10 of the ‘o’s (or zeros) representing a page number and turning red to indicate the one you’re looking at.
Given the vast amount of data it crawls through, it makes a lot of sense for Google to be named after a very large number, but that still doesn’t explain the origin of the word. Most numbers big numbers end with -illion, why does this one sound like a child’s word?
The answer to that is because a child invented it. In 1920, American mathematician Edward Kasner, who wanted to get young people interested in large numbers, wanted to give this gigantic number a more child-friendly name than ‘ten duotrigintillion’, so he asked children for suggestions. His nephew, nine-year-old Milton Sirotta, suggested ‘googol’, and Kasner went with it.
It seems incredible that this nonsense word, once uttered by a primary school child to his uncle during a walk alongside the Hudson River in New Jersey nearly a century ago, is now such an important part of our language. Sadly, Milton died in 1981, so would never have seen the legacy his word went on to have beyond mathematics, albeit spelt differently.
From just seeing it written down, it’s hard to get your head around just how big a googol is. It’s more than the number of stars in the universe, and it’s certainly more than the number of pages Google stores information on. In 2013, that number stood at a paltry 30 trillion, showing that there is an astronomically long way to go before Google has a googol pages in its grasp.
If that’s hard to imagine, consider that there is such a number as a googolplex, which is one followed by a googol zeros. Google has picked up on this too, with The Googleplex being the name of its Californian headquarters.
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