My most recent publication, ‘Umpteen reflections on indefinite hyperbolic numerals‘ (American Speech 91(1), 1-33) defines and discusses a category of words: indefinite hyperbolic numerals. These are words like umpteen or skillion, which look and act like numerals, but don’t have a definite numerical meaning: they’re always indefinite, and almost always refer to some exaggerated quantity. One of my main arguments is that while we think of words ending in -illion as random alterations of the first consonant of million or billion, their history is rooted in specific speech communities, and in particular, American speech communities of the late 19th and early 20th century. I show that in the 1920s and 1930s, almost all of the instances of zillion are in African American publications, and almost all of the instances of jillion are from Texas and the southern Plains states. Jillion almost never appears in African American publications and zillion almost never appears in the Plains. After the start of World War II, these regional numerical traditions disappeared for the most part, and the words’ specific communities of origin were lost.
One thing that had bothered me was that I hadn’t been able to figure out what happened where those two communities intersected. What about the African American communities of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska? Did they use jillion, zillion, or both?
Too late to add to the article, but not too late to share here, I’ve now found one instance of jillion in an African-American newspaper, the Negro Star of Wichita, Kansas:
Wichita had (and still has) a large African American community, and the Negro Star was published there from 1908 to 1953. But it’s worth noting that this is an ad, placed by the Kansas Gas and Electric Company (now Kansas Gas Service), which was the energy provider for the whole state, so there’s a likelihood that the ad was written by white copywriters (from whom we would expect jillion). On the other hand, I haven’t been able to find another copy of this same ad in any other paper, so maybe this was a one-off ad written specifically for the Star by a black writer. Regardless, within a few years of its publication, jillion and zillion would intermix freely in American English.