Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Tera-, Peta-, and Femtoflops

My old friend Chris Stewart of South Africa chided me today for sending out anything so outdated as teraflop for a Good Word. Indeed, over the weekends I’m recycling some words from four years back for the benefit of those who have subscribed since then and for myself, who has discovered the joys of weekends off. Over the course of those four years, electronics has grown immensely smaller and faster, so Chris is right in trying to lead me to the future. Here is what Chris said in part (I left out the chiding section):

“Just a few weeks ago I had an e-mail exchange with a friend of mine in the software industry on the subject of Intel’s new generation of processors. These consumer items contain about half a trillion transistors on a single chip. I said soon individuals will be able to purchase portable computers containing teratranny chips (a word I coined to indicate a trillion transistors). I mention it purely as an example of unsurprising synchronicity since terra- as a prefix is clearly becoming more common.”

“Having said all that,” Chris continues, “tera- is already passe whereas peta- is on the rise. Peta- seems to have a peculiar contrived etymology; at least its antonym femto-, which is also on the rise) seems to have more solid origins (being Danish for “fifteen”). Doubtless exa- will soon become commonplace, while atto- / femto- / pico- are already with us, e.g. inkjet printers are described in marketing materials as dispensing picolitre droplets. SI units are a bit weird, therefore interesting.”

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, “IBM’s supercomputer dubbed Blue Gene/P is designed to eventually operate at three petaFLOPS.” The Free Dictionary offers five entries for pemto-, and its definition for pemtovolt is “one quadrillionth of a volt (or one thousandth of a nanosecond)”. I must admit to being surprised that someone deferred to Danish rather than the much heavier authorities of Latin and Greek for this prefix.

I also like Chris’s word teratranny and the implication of petatranny processors in the future. It is gratifying to know that the English language can still keep up with the rapid changes in computer and electronic technology.  The number of transistors possible in a single chip seems to be paced by the number of dollars in the US national debt. Is there a connection?

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