In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.
This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.
“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.
When inventing a name for an imaginary and/or ridiculous object or concept, the best resource is often a child. A clear example of this arrived in the late 1930s, when mathematician Edward Kasner was searching for a simple name for a very large number. The number was a 1 with one hundred zeros after it: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, also known as 10100, or ten duotrigintillion. Kasner turned to his 9-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, for ideas, and Milton promptly suggested the name “googol.” The name stuck, and Kasner brought the googol into public consideration in his 1940 book Mathematics and the Imagination as an illustration of a very large number. For example, if one were to count all subatomic particles in the entire observable universe, the total would be less than a googol.
Young Milton was not content to stop at this very large number, however. He next proposed that there exists an even larger number than a googol, called a googolplex. While initially Milton defined a googolplex as a 1 followed by as many zeros as one could write before one collapsed, his uncle suggested a more precise definition: a 1 followed by a googol zeros, or 1010100. There is not enough time or space in the universe to write out such a number in our current base-10 system, but thanks to Kasner and his nephew, it can be expressed with a mere handful of letters.
In 1996, a young Larry Page wanted to give his new search engine a name that evoked vast quantities of data to be placed at the fingertips of its users. After tossing ideas around with his officemate Sean Anderson, Larry decided that “googol” was the perfect term. Sean did a quick check online to see whether the domain name was available. It was, and a multi-billion dollar company was born, but owing to Sean’s clumsy spelling, the search engine is now known as Google.