Jiffy? Centijiffy? Decijiffy?

“I’ll be with you in a jiffy.” How long is a jiffy?

What about a centijiffy?

Before we get to the urgent question of how long a jiffy is, I want to comment on a surprising error (or is it an error?) by Neal Stephenson in his latest massive novel, Fail. Since I’m only halfway through the thousand pages — well, actually only about 900, but who’s counting? — I’m not going to review it yet, but I was struck by the odd reference to a character being a “decimillionaire” and later on a “centimillionaire.” Clearly Stephenson meant decamillionaire and hectomillionaire, don’t you think? And yet, Merrimam-Webster surprisingly defines centimillionaire as “one whose wealth is estimated at one hundred million,” which is obviously wrong, since the unit should refer to 1/100 of a million, ak.a. 10,000. For example, nobody thinks that a centimeter is 100 meters or that 100 grams should be called a centigram. 

The issue, I believe, is whether we’re talking units of measurement (with metric conventions) or whether we’re talking other applications of the numerical prefixes. For instance, a decennial census is taken every ten years, not every tenth of a year. There’s no consensus, however, about whether bimonthly means “every two months” or “twice a month.” This is unnecessarily confusing! Something must be done.

So a centijiffy is clearly either 100 jiffies or 1/100 of a jiffy — but how long is a jiffy? See the fascinating short exploration of this question (including a brief excursion into some clock arithmetic) at Omniglot, where Simon Agre points out that a jiffy is technically “the time it takes light to travel one centimetre, or 33.3564 picoseconds.” But we all knew that already, didn’t we?

Categories: Books, Linguistics, Math