Monday, November 29, 2010

Myriad Myriads

Writing a novel is making a thousand little decisions, some requiring a day of thought or more, but most of them made right on the spot, with no lifting of fingers from the keyboard: Will your protagonist have long hair or short? Do his sleuthing on a foggy day or a sunny day? Pilfer sourdough bread starter, as instructed by his boss, or not?... Many, many daily decisions -- a myriad of them, you might say. Which brings me to the topic of today's post. Myriad. Is it a noun, an adjective, what?

It was more than a point of grammar for me as I wrapped up the final edit of Regarding Ducks and Universes. In Universe B, as it happens, they use Ancient Roman units of measurement: stadium (just over 200 yards) and libra (about 0.7 pounds and where, incidentally, the modern pound gets its abbreviation of lb). But what of myriad?

In our own universe the original Greek word started out with essentially the same meaning it has now (abundant, numerous, countless) according to Gullberg's Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers. The word later acquired a more specific meaning -- it denoted the number ten thousand. (Tens, hundreds, thousands, myriads...) As it made its way into English via Latin, myriad lost its mathematical meaning, much like decimate no longer means reduce by (exactly) a tenth.

Numbers do come up in Regarding Ducks and Universes a lot: house numbers, cups of tea drank, the number of people in the world, that kind of thing. I had small numbers, I had big numbers, but none of them* happened to be exactly 10,000. I briefly though about using myriad myriads (as Archimedes did when estimating the number of grains of sand), but that seemed kind of awkward. So I took the easy route: myriads of Bygone Times Sourdough Bread Makers in Universe B implies what it usually does, an unspecified large number.

Oh, and the word can be either an adjective or a noun. So it's perfectly fine to say I hope my next novel doesn't require a myriad of edits.  It's also fine to say And that it sells myriad copies.

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*Curiously, I ended up having the number in the book after all: ten thousand libras, for the mass of a typical Universe B car. When writing a novel this kind of thing happens all the time.