It’s another one of those words that is used so casually that it sometimes says something that is really not what the word means.
People will say something like “The number of customers at the shop has increased exponentially.” The store owner is attempting to say that business is good, that what was a trickle of new customers at one time has increased to a steady flow of customers. Unless we are talking about the introduction of a new cell phone by one of the big manufacturers, I doubt very much that the increase was exponential.
The word exponential is a math term which refers to the use of exponents. It is a symbol placed next to a number indicating the number of times the number or quantity is to be multiplied by itself. Think about that. If the number of customers at the beginning had been 12, for instance, and that number increased exponentially by itself, the new number would be 144. If the increase was exponential in multiples, you can picture the kinds of numbers we are talking about. For instance, if the exponent of 12 is 6, that means that the number is now in the thousands. That means 12 x 12 x12x12x12x12x12. I am not even sure I can fathom that increase, which I believe is 35,831,808. When is the last time you saw that kind of number of people going into a shop to buy a new shirt?
The point I am making is that the use of the word exponential is an intentional exaggeration. When someone uses the term, apart from mathematicians, they are really saying that the increase is beyond expectation…beyond belief. That may be a number in the range of a few hundred, which to a store owner is phenomenal. It is wonderful. It is glorious, especially if it maintains that kind of growth.
But most people are just expressing their enthusiasm for good growth. It’s not really exponential.
Now, in the realm of science, it is not inconceivable that the term exponential growth may be employed. In talking about cancer, for instance, the disease may begin with just one lonely cell. In a matter of a short time that one cell, unchecked, may increase exponentially to hundreds or thousands of cancer cells. That’s the scourge of the disease. Growth is beyond the doctor’s capability of checking it or stifling it. Only dramatic methods can be effective in overcoming it. Thankfully, we are at a point where that can happen.
When it comes to rabbits reproducing, it’s no secret to anyone that it seems as if rabbits reproduce exponentially. It’s a perception, not an actual survey.
I’m not campaigning for the removal of exponential from our language. To the contrary, I think it’s a word that demonstrates the dramatic growth of something, hopefully customers. My hope is that our economy will experience exponential growth in the years ahead, maybe even matching the actual meaning.
Illustration Credit: Emily Gravett