Live English Open Dictionary

Open Dictionary word of the week: petaflop

Anybody can add a word and its definition to the Open Dictionary. Every week I choose a word from recent entries to rattle on about. Petaflop is this week’s word.

petaflop (noun)

a measure of a computer’s processing speed. It can be expressed as a thousand trillion floating point operations per second

Its speed? A whopping 16.32 petaflops, or 16 thousand trillion calculations per second.

(Submitted from the United Kingdom)

So peta is a quadrillion (10 to the power of 15) and that’s impressive. Things keep getting bigger and faster. The minuscule kilo (thousand)? Pah. Remember when mega (million) was mega and giga (billion) was gigantic? And it wasn’t long ago that the tera bit through the glass ceiling. But now we’re at peta – and it’s a flop. Maybe because, what with all the inflation, size has become meaningless, speed unimpressive. Is it quicker than instantly? Good, we’ll have it, whatever the prefix.

In Stan Carey’s awesome post on linguistic inflation he said

Inflation lies behind the popular use of such words as genius, epic, awesome, totally, and incredible. What they mean is often more modest than their traditional senses suggest: genius means clever, epic is impressive, incredible is surprising. Such is our need to imbue our words with force and significance, that we use hyperbole to entice people to pay attention – and the hyperbolic terms gradually normalise.

Poor scientists. I mean, there is no inflation here: a petaflop is faster. It is, in fact, exactly as fast as a thousand trillion floating point operations per second. If any of us had any idea of what that speed actually meant we would probably be insanely impressed. You can imagine the moment in the lab (I have no idea) where the speed was recorded – the amazement, the thrill, the champagne. And what do we, we who are afflicted with underwhelment because of this ‘need to imbue our words with force and significance’, what do we do when we hear that something is travelling at a petaflop? If you’re like me you’d say something like. Flop! Ha! Not the best word choice. Or, jeez, things get faster all the time, what’s next, a zinga-something? Well, no, actually, what’s next is an exa-something and when that totally epic moment comes … well, we probably won’t get it.


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Laine Redpath Cole

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