Trying to finish last week’s New Yorker before the new one arrives, I began “The End of Ice: Exploring a Himalayan glacier” by the estimable Dexter Filkins and was pulled up short before I finished the first paragraph:
The journey to the Chhota Shigri Glacier, in the Himalayan peaks of northern India, begins thousands of feet below, in New Delhi—a city of twenty-five million people, where smoke from diesel trucks and cow-dung fires dims the sky and where the temperature on a hot summer day can reach a hundred and fifteen degrees. The route passes through a churning sprawl of low-land cities, home to some fifty million people, until the Himalayas come into view: a steep wall rising above the plains, the product of a tectonic collision that began thousands of years ago and is still under way.
“Thousands of years ago?” I thought. “What the hell?” I looked it up, and found what I expected: “The Himalayan mountain range and Tibetan plateau have formed as a result of the collision between the Indian Plate and Eurasian Plate which began 50 million years ago and continues today.” But then it occurred to me that, technically, “thousands of years ago” is perfectly correct — it’s just a whole lot of thousands. And I reflected on how it is we use such words; there’s no fixed amount at which it stops making sense to say “thousands” (you could certainly use it of something that happened, say, 12,000 years ago, but not a million years ago, and I personally would stop well before the 100,000-year mark), but that doesn’t mean it’s endlessly flexible. I guess it’s a sorites problem.
At any rate, when I went to the online version of the article to copy the paragraph, I found it had been rewritten to say “a tectonic collision that began millions* of years ago,” with a footnote reading: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified when the tectonic collision that formed the Himalayas began.” So for the New Yorker, at any rate, “thousands” here wasn’t just absurdly understated, it was out-and-out incorrect.