Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Infinitely Infinitesimal

Colleen from WTCM asked why infinity and infinitesimal are polar opposites. Infinity means without end, something immeasurably huge, while infinitesimal means an incredibly small amount.

The –esimal ending of the word came to signify a fraction. Thus, something infinitesimal is divided by infinity, which is why it is almost unquantifiable. In a looser, more colloquial sense, it means something very small or insignificant.

On a lesser scale, millesimal refers to a thousandth part, centesimal signifies a hundredth part, nonagesimal means a ninetieth part, sexagesimal a sixtieth part, quinquagesimal a fiftieth part, trigesimal a thirtieth part, and vicesimal a twentieth part.

Historically, quadragesimal and quaresimal came to signify the forty days of Lent, while quinquagesimal gravitated to the fifty day interval between Easter and Pentecost.

SIDEBAR: Journey to the edge of the universe

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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