Units that Measure Up: From Giga-watts to Hella-tons

UC Davis physics student Austin Sendek has proposed that the prefix “hella-” be used as a standard prefix for 10^27th power. If that sentence doesn’t make much sense to you, you’re in luck – there’s an explanation in Part 1 below. If you could parse the sentence but think it’s a rather lame joke, don’t make up your mind quite yet – I’ll lay out the surprising history of some units that might make you reconsider in Part 2.

Part 1: Giga-what, giga-who?

Most of the time you and I can get by with some pretty small numbers. I might buy a 5-pound bag of flour or ask you to lend me 20 dollars, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you work in science, engineering, economics, or other similar fields you inevitably need to count or measure things that are really, really big, and you don’t want your readers to spend all their time counting digits rather than appreciating your brilliant prose.

This is why we have the International System of Units (SI) and its prefixes. When Doc Brown is pouring pilfered plutonium into a DeLorean to send it to the future, rather than wrapping Marty’s head around 1,210,000,000 watts he can simply exclaim, “1.21 gigawatts!” When Commander Data is downloading MP3s, he can say he’s got 100 petabytes to fill, rather than boring Geordi with 100,000,000,000,000,000.

But what happens when you get past peta- (10^15), exa- (10^18), zetta- (10^21) and yotta (10^24)? Right now you’re stuck. At this point we’re in the range of some ridiculously big numbers, but the universe is ridiculously big. The mass of the Earth is about 5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grams, or 5,980 yottagrams – but who’s got time for thousands of yottagrams?

Sendek has a solution – add a new prefix, hella-. Now we can say that the Earth’s mass is about 6 hellagrams. Isn’t that better? If you like, you can join the petition at Facebook.

If you’re not from California you might not recognize the term “hella.” No worries, I’m originally from Cleveland, where the only person who ever said “hella” was Mr. T in A-Team reruns, so it took me a while to catch on too.

“Hella” may have started as a contraction of “a hell of a”, as in “we had a hell of a good time,” but has evolved to serve as both an intensifier and a quantifier. For example:

  1. That particular flavor of ice cream is hella delicious.
  2. Let’s go to that other heladeria, they have hella flavors.

You can read more scholarly research by Bucholtz, Bermudez, Fung, Edwards, and Vargas in the Journal of English Linguistics.

Part 2: Hella isn’t as crazy as you might think

“Hella” is regional slang, and Sendek’s petition is a bit tongue-in-cheek, so why don’t we just dismiss this as a stupid joke? Well, it turns out that not all current SI units – though very impressive and scientific-sounding – have very scientific origins.

Let’s take giga-, for example. From Wikipedia, we learn:

According to the American writer Kevin Self, a German committee member of the International Electrotechnical Commission proposed giga as a prefix for 10^9 in the 1920s, drawing on a verse by the humorous poet Christian Morgenstern that appeared in the third (1908) edition of Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs). This suggests that a hard German [?] was originally intended as the pronunciation. Self was unable to ascertain at what point the alternative pronunciation came into occasional use, but claimed that as of 1995 it had died out.

As a non-German I was completely ignorant of Galgenlieder, so I poked around a bit to learn more about the source of our very scientific prefix. It turns out this is a book of literary nonsense poetry, and includes this verse (translated to English):

The Winglewangle phlutters
through widowadowood,
the crimson Fingoor splutters
and scary screaks the Scrood.

So yeah. Given this precedent, it’s safe to say we can pull SI prefixes from whatever source we want. We can continue up the chain. Tera- comes from the Greek for “monster”, meaning every time some programmer talks about terabytes they might as well be saying “it’s like monster-bytes big, yo!” Prefixes come from German, Greek, Italian, even Danish. Given the many contributions to science and engineering by the United States, isn’t it time for a prefix of peculiarly American English origin?

Bonus Part 3: Get a load of this

I’m not quite done yet. Some of our least official-sounding vernacular units actually have extensive literary and historical backing. I’m talking, of course, about the assload. How many times have you heard phrases like, “I have an assload of homework,” or “I have to get this assload of parrots to the recycling center?”

i want my MTV

Well it turns out that this unit of measure has a long, established history. In fact, it’s biblical. From Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000), Page 1375:

The homer serves as the standard expression of dry capacity in the OT [Old Testament]. The word “homer” is cognate to “ass” and serves as an approximation to the normal load carried by this animal.

The reason you don’t remember it from Sunday school is that it’s usually imprecisely translated as “measure” in the King James Version. It shows up in Exodus 16:35 and Ezekial 45:11 and probably other places, but those KJV guys took a lot of artistic license in translating units to “a measure.”

Sewing up the argument hella tight

In a sense, this all boils down to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. Measures used to all be descriptivist like the assload, but now we need prescriptive precision. “Hella” is a prescriptivist’s nightmare, but most modern linguists are descriptivists, so why not? And don’t even get me started on the units that journalists tend to use on TV, where you’re more likely to encounter “football fields” as a measure of area than square meters.

So we have historical precedent for the “hella-” prefix and we’ve incidentally proven that “assload” deserves its spot in the lexicon of quantification. So sign the petition, and if you happen to know any members of the SI committee, please pass this along so we can get this matter settled quickly.

4 thoughts on “Units that Measure Up: From Giga-watts to Hella-tons

  1. “This suggests that a hard German [?] was originally intended as the pronunciation.”

    I don’t speak German, but I seem to remember that German “g” can only represent what English speakers call “hard g”, hence the original pronunciation is the one people use today, rather than “jiga-“, which is occasionally head from older people, but now considered wrong.

    “In a sense, this all boils down to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. Measures used to all be descriptivist like the assload, but now we need prescriptive precision. “Hella” is a prescriptivist’s nightmare, but most modern linguists are descriptivists, so why not?”

    Sorry to day this, but “hella-” will be a prescriptive standard just like the other measures. It’s one group of people telling the rest what they should say. Not that’s a bad thing, intelligent and thoughtful prescriptivism can be a good thing — read something from the 1400-1500s and you will appreciate standardized spelling even if English spelling isn’t terribly intuitive.

    I wouldn’t call “assload” descriptivist. Perscriptivism and descriptivism are attitudes and methods applied to language, not properties of words themselves. I get the feeling that some linguists (note: I am not a linguist, I just have an amateur interest.) have a tendency to inadvertently promote that misunderstanding by railing against the most ridiculous or extreme prescriptivism out there, spending much less time on beneficial and informed perscriptivism

  2. Giga- is giant, right? What’s so German comedy about that?
    Anywho, it seems that we’re now stuck on a pattern of naming the new prefixes by using numbers, slightly distorted, though. Yotta and yacto both come from octo, Greek for eight, which makes sense given that yotta is 1000 to the eighth. Similar things can be said about the last few prefixes. What makes sense would be something like nona- or nova-.

  3. If mass of Earth is 5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grams and yotta = 10^24, then mass of earth is 5.98 yottagrams.
    But I see where your mistake came from: mass of earth is ~5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms, which is about 5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons.
    Which is about 5,980,000,000 teratons.
    Which is about 6 billion teratons.
    No need for “yotta” prefix.

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    if one field is missing (e.g. email) when commentator clicks “Submit Comment”, then the whole comment vanishes and even back button doesn’t help.

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