The Universe of Discourse
Sun, 06 Jan 2008

A while back I looked up "zillion" in Wikipedia, which is an alias for the Wikipedia article about "Indefinite and fictitious numbers". The article includes a large number of synonyms for "zillion", such as bajillion, kajillion, gazillion, and so forth. For some reason the word "squillion" caught my eye, and I noticed that the citation was from Terry Pratchett: "And you owe me a million billion trillion zillion squillion dollars." This suggested to me that "squillion" might be a nonce-word, one made up on the spot by Pratchett for that one sentence, in which case it should not be in the Wikipedia article.

Google book search is a good way to answer questions like that, because if "squillion" is widely used, you will find a lot of examples of it. And indeed it is widely used, and I did find a lot of examples of it. So there was no need to remove it from the article.

One of the Google hits was from the Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin translation of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. The Decameron is a great classic of Italian Renaissance literature, probably the greatest classic that Italian has, after Dante's Divine Comedy. It was written around 1350. In this particular chapter (the tenth story on the sixth day, if you want to look it up) Guccio, a priest, is trying to seduce a hideous kitchen-maid:

He sat himself down by the fire—although this was August—and struck up a conversation with the wench in question (Nuta by name), informing her that he was by rights a member of the gentry and had more than a squillion florins in the bank, not counting those he had to give to other people...

The kitchen-maid, by the way, is described as having "a pair of tits like two baskets of manure".

This was amusing, and as I had never read the Decameron, I wanted to read more, and learn how it turned out. But the Google excerpt was limited, so I asked the library to get me a copy of that version of the Decameron. Of course they have many copies on the shelf, but not that particular translation. So I asked the interlibrary loan people for it, and they got it for me.

When it arrived, I was rather dismayed. The ILL people get the book from the most convenient place, and that means that it often comes from the Drexel library, up the street, or the Temple library, across town, or the West Chester Community College library, or Lehigh University, about an hour away in Bethlehem. (Steel Bethlehem, of course, not Jesus Bethlehem.) The farthest I had ever gotten a book from was an extremely obscure quilting manual that Lorrie asked for; it eventually arrived from the Sno-Isles regional library system of Marysville, Washington.

But this copy of the Decameron came from the Sloman library of the University of Essex. I was so shocked that I had to look it up online to make sure that it was not Essex, New Jersey, or something like that. I was not. It was East Saxony. I was upset because I felt that the trouble and effort had been wasted. If I had known that the nearest available copy of Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin's translation was in Essex, I would have been happy to take a different version that was on the shelf. And then to top it off, I had hardly begun to read it before it came due and had to be sent back to Essex.

So I went to the library and got another Decameron, this one translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. Here is the corresponding passage:

Although it was still August, he took a seat near the fire and began to talk with the girl, whose name was Nuta, telling her that he was a gentleman by procuration, that he had more than a thousand hundreds of florins (not counting those he had to give away to others), ...

And there is a footnote on "thousand hundreds" explaining "Guccio invents this amount, as well as the previous phrase 'by procuration,' in order to impress his lady." By the way, in this version, Nuta has "a pair of tits that looked like two clumps of cowshit".

Anyway, I think I liked "squillions" better than "thousand hundreds", although I suppose "thousand hundreds" is probably a more literal translation.

Well, I can find this out. Of course, one can find the Decameron online in Italian; the copyright expired about five hundred years ago. Here it is in Italian, courtesy of Brown University:

E ancora che d'agosto fosse, postosi presso al fuoco a sedere, cominciò con costei, che Nuta aveva nome, a entrare in parole e dirle che egli era gentile uomo per procuratore e che egli aveva de' fiorini piú di millantanove, senza quegli che egli aveva a dare altrui,...
I think the word that is being translated here is "millantanove", although I can't be entirely sure, because I don't know Italian. Once again, though, I am surprised at how easy it is to read a passage in an unintelligible foreign language when I already know what it is going to say. (I wrote about this back in April 2006, and it occurs to me now that that would be a fun topic for an article.)

The 1903 translation that Brown University provides is "more florins than could be reckoned", which does not seem to me to capture the flavor of the original, and does not seem to be a literal translation either. "Millantanove" seems to me to be a made-up word resembling "mille" = "thousand". But as I said, I don't know Italian.

Nuta in this version has "a pair of breasts that shewed as two buckets of muck". Feh. The Italian is "con un paio di poppe che parean due ceston da letame". The operative phrase here seems to be "ceston da letame". I don't know what those words mean, but, happily, Italian Wikipedia has an article about letame, and as the picture makes clear, it is indeed manure.

Oh, did you want this article to have a point? Too bad.

I recommend the Decameron. It is funny and salacious. There are a lot of stories about women cheating on their husbands, and then getting away with it through some clever trick, and then everyone who hears the story laughs and admires the cleverness of the ladies. (The counterpoint to this is that there are a number of stories of wife-beating, in which everyone who hears the story laughs and admires the wisdom of the husbands. I don't like that so much.)

There are farcical stories of bed-swapping and wife-swapping, and one story about an abbess who comes out of her cell to berate a nun for having her lover in to visit, but the abbess is wearing a pair of men's trousers on her head instead of her wimple. Oops.

This reminds me of when I was in high school, I was talking to one of my friends, who opted to study French, and this friend told me studying French is fun, because when you get to the third year and start reading real French literature, you read that great classic of French Literature, La Vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel. If you have not read this master treasure of French culture, I should explain that the first chapter is mainly taken up with Gargantua and Pantagruel having a discussion about what is the best sort of thing to wipe your ass with, and it goes on from there.

I took Latin, and in third-year Latin we read the orations of Cicero against Cataline. Fun stuff, but not the sort of thing that has you rushing to translate the next word.

I was going to write an article about symmetries of the dodecahedron, and an interesting problem suggested to me by these balloon displays that I saw at the local Mazda dealership, but eh, this was a lot easier.

Gargantua and Pantagruel eventually agree that the answer is a live goose.

[ Addendum 20080201: More about 'milliantanove'. ]

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