A myriad explained — in honor of 10,000 hits

This blog will reach a milestone soon, probably on the day I post this entry: 10,000 unique page views.

Of course, in the vast world of the Internet, that’s nothing: there are a myriad of sites which get that kind of traffic every day — plenty of major ones that see it in just a few minutes. It’s taken this site about 17 months to accumulate its myriad.

And if you haven’t guessed yet, myriad is the subject of this post.

Allow me a few sentences to express my pride and thanks before I get to “myriad.” Ten thousand hits is an achievement, after all. Not only is this blog situated in one of the web’s most over-populated backwater subject areas (language and grammar), but I’ve done very little to actively promote it. With no help, it’s become one of the top sources for certain student search strings: depending on how the search terms are used, the posts on writing single sentence paragraphs, or the cranberry morpheme, or honing vs. homing, as well as several others, show up within the first few links returned on Google. I’ve kept my expectations for growth modest, and they’ve been met: based on a rough thumbnail calculation when I launched, I actually had hoped the 10,000 mark would be reached just about now (give or take a few weeks). I thank all of you for making that happen: the small but growing number of regular followers, the students who stop by only once or twice for particular topics, the folks who browse through from Facebook shares and random WordPress appearances. This blog is meant to be for fun and education as much as it is to drive additional editing business, and it seems to have succeeded on all counts. I appreciate every page view, and thank you.

Now, onto this lovely word: myriad.

A myriad of buddhas  (Ten Thousand Buddhas Shrine, Hong Kong)

A myriad of buddhas (Ten Thousand Buddhas Shrine, Hong Kong)

It’s often used poetically or hyperbolically, as either a collective noun (“he looked out upon the myriad“) or as an adjective (“in the pit below, a myriad of snakes slithered“). Both uses imply — or sometimes explicitly state — that the number of objects described is vast; that while they might have a specific number, they are in practice not countable. A myriad of stars above your head; a myriad of grains among the sand beneath your feet.

Myriad has a long history. The word comes from ancient Greek, and a form was later adopted into Latin. You’re fairly likely to encounter it in English versions of ancient classics: Ovid writes of “myriad rumors,” “myriad men,” and “myriad risks;” Homer of the “myriad tribes” of the dead encountered by Odysseus in Hades. This will depend on the translator, however, as in this sense (“innumerable“) other terms might be chosen.

For most of its existence myriad has also had a second, more precise meaning: not simply innumerable, but exactly ten thousand. It’s difficult to tell the two uses apart in classical literature. Even when used precisely (as Pausanias: “thirty myriad Persians had been destroyed” in the Battle of Marathon), the math often gives the numbers doubtful credibility. In English, the confusion — real and potential — caused by this definition seems to have kept this precise counting use of myriad to a minimum. Since the 19th century, most uses of this sense are limited to referencing classical (ancient) historical myriads. (Although in modern Greek the word lives on in the numerical sense.)

Although myriad is a Greek word, it has analogs in other languages — at least as translated into English. In Chinese, for example, one name for the Great Wall, the “Ten Thousand Li Wall,” uses this figurative sense of “ten thousand” to mean “immeasurable” (and see the end note below).

Some words have strange, almost physical qualities in the mind for different people, and myriad is such a word for me. It glitters and shines, like a school of fish shimmering just below the surface on a sunny day.

It’s always had a certain visual quality to it, and a sense of things in motion, even when I first encountered it as a child. At that time, I learned that it meant ‘a great number, perhaps uncountable.’ That helped confirm the visual quality of it: a myriad of bright shields and flashing swords marching across the field of battle; a myriad of leaves shaking on the branches of a vast forest; a myriad of stinging insects vexing travelers through a fetid marsh.

I later learned that myriad was frequently intended to mean, literally, 10,000, but that in practical use and translation this specificity was often lost. This only made the word more interesting to me. It became not just shiny, but slippery. Later still, learning that this wasn’t just a convention in classical Greek, but in other languages, added to the interest factor of this word.

I once read the (somewhat dubious) assertion that pre-modern people were incapable of either counting past 10,000 or of comprehending numbers that large, and that number words like myriad could only be accepted in the figurative sense. I give our ancestors a bit more credit than that. They understood the precise use of language and the metaphorical uses and could move between them, the same as we do today.

As the hits on this blog enter their second myriad, I thank you all again for your past and continuing support. May you find frequent circumstances to enjoy literal and figurative myriads of your own (and to use the word itself now and then).

= = = = =

End Note: My Chinese and Japanese are essentially non-existent. While I know such terms exist in those languages (and others), I’m not able to give good translations of the specific words. The Chinese term may be qian yi and the Japanese (in Romaji) musuu. If I’ve got these wrong and you know better, please leave a comment to let me know. Sources tell me that some Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) also have specific (and different) numerical words for 10,000, which are used in the precise, not the metaphorical sense.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to A myriad explained — in honor of 10,000 hits

  1. Pam Phillips says:

    I can comment a little about big numbers in Japanese. If by “musuu” you mean 無数, it’s meaning is more like “uncountable”. The mathematical ten thousand is //man// (pronounced “mahn”, written 万). The next big number is 万 * 万 = 億, oku, a hundred million.
    If you ever have to deal with Japanese currency, you really have to get used to dealing in big numbers proceeding by four powers of ten groups. You can hardly buy lunch without pulling a two man yen bill out of your wallet.

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