Daily Archives: November 29, 2011

milli

This is my thousandth blog post. It’s not quite my thousandth word tasting note – actually, it’s number 906 – but depending on how you count, I can lay claim to having tasted more than a thousand words, since many notes cover more than one word. So the easy thing is to count the blog posts, and just roll in all my other articles too.

So what better to do for a thousandth than a thousandth? Admittedly, that makes this an affix tasting note – specifically prefix, and more generally a bound morpheme tasting note – but so what. Milli gets around. It has such a smooth flavour, and mixes so well, I’m tempted to say milli has a vanilla taste – but real vanilla, not fake like Milli Vanilli. Its clear mellifluity and overtones of mellifluous nothwithstanding, I don’t think it flows like honey (which is what mellifluous means in origin); honey is too thick and sticky. This morpheme is more like jelly, or sliding down nicely like an oyster (but not like oyster – more like mussel).

It mixes smoothly, but is a hard worker. It gets around quite a bit, and is popular enough to be impersonated on occasion. Some of its popular pairings include millimetre, milligram, and millilitre. You’ll see it in millipede, but that’s not a thousandth of a foot; and though ng stands for nanogram, milling is certainly not a thousandth of a nanogram.

It shows up with some cuter units, too – for instance, millibarn (a thousandth of a rather small barn – actually a unit of area used to measure atomic nuclei) and milligal (not a little woman, but a small unit of acceleration).

It also hangs out with many a famous eponym: millicurie, millidarcy, millidarwin, millifarad, milligauss, millihelen, millihenry, millijansky, millijoule, millikaiser, millikelvin, millilambert, milliroentgen, millisievert, millitorr, milliwatt, milliweber… All these Millies sound like the daughters of famous people. And look at them all on the screen there: it looks as though it’s been chiseled into with a toothed chisel or combed like hair. Perhaps it’s the famous hair of Helen of Troy. You know, she of the face that launched a thousand ships.

It has been proposed that there be a standard unit of beauty, the Helen, representing sufficient beauty to launch a thousand ships. A millihelen (did you spot it in there?) would be enough beauty to launch one ship. But we would have to use a different unit for beauty in hats – a milliner, of course.

And, speaking of women, how about Millicent? Is she worth a hundred thousand (would that make her worth a hundred pictures?) or a thousandth of a hundredth? Naw, her name – cognate with Melisande – is composed of German roots for “labour” and “strength”. So a tenth of a Millicent is not a myriad – or a Muriel.

Milli comes from Latin mille, “thousand”; it is partially coincidental that M is the Roman numeral for 1000 (the original symbol came from the Greek letter Φ and later mutated to look more like the initial of mille; D for 500 comes from half Φ). The m may help milli feel more mini than maxi; it’s no category killer like the Greek-derived kilo, maybe more home with micro (also Greek-derived), though mega (also Greek!) brings the m too.

Speaking of which, what’s with this million thing? How confusing is that, to have milli be a thousandth and million be, well, a thousand million times as much (which is either a milliard or a billion, depending on your system – but not a mallard; that’s a canard). We can thank Italian for that: the milli for “thousand” combined with the suffix one (as in panettone) to make not a thousand and one but a big thousand, milione: a thousand squared.

Mm, a thousand squared. OK, but what about the illi? James Harbeck would be the silliest if he made it illeist. It could be two ones and two fifties (in Canadian terms, that’s two queens and two Kings), or perhaps two candles and two rockets – celebration for a thousand posts? Or, I should say, for a thousandth post? And then the m is a slice of cake, the fork with which to eat it, what you say while eating it. And the espresso to follow the expression must expressly be Illy brand.