Zed or zee? I have always viewed zee as an Americanism to be avoided at all costs and so use zed. Either way, zenzizenzizenzic has the distinction of being the word in the Oxford English Dictionary with the most zs. It is not much use for Scrabble, I grant you, but this useless piece of knowledge might scoop you a prize in a quiz.

Mathematical notation has come on leaps and bounds since the mid-16th century when Richard Recorde was getting to grips with the power and magic of numbers in compiling his The Whetstone of Witt, which came out in 1557. Although there was already an accepted notation for representing a number squared and cubed, in Recorde’s time if you wanted to express something to the power of four and beyond, all you could do was right out the description in full.

Recorde sought to improve upon this unwieldy practice by developing a form of notation which he hoped would be universally adopted amongst mathematicians and scientists. His fundamental building blocks consisted of just three words; zenzic, a German spelling of the Italian word censo used to denote squared, cubic representing the power of three, and sursolid which was used to denote a number raised to the power of a prime number greater than three.

A number raised to the power of six, under Recorde’s system of notation, would be zenzicubic and to the power of seven bissursolid. Zenzizenzicubic would be a number raised to the power of twelve, and so on.

Following this logical if somewhat clumsy system of notation, a number that was said to be zenzizenzizenzic would be the square of the square of a number’s square or a number to the power of eight. Samuel Jeake, in his A Compleat Body of Arithmetic, in Four Books, published in 1701, topped it with zenzizenzizenzizenzike, the square of the square of the square of the square, or a number to the power of sixteen to you and me, but this mouth-twister never caught on. Thankfully, the logical and simpler system of subscripts became more widely accepted. I wonder why.

I cannot help thinking that Recorde was too clever zenzic for his own good!

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