Argument — much like karaoke and online shopping — is at its best with friends and a drink. This column is devoted to solving the only questions that truly matter: the dumb arguments about life and pop culture developed and hashed out in barroom rants. We’ll use data and research to take these arguments to their logical statistical conclusions. If you’d like to submit a question, corner the author at one of his typical haunts and pick a fight.
I recently got into an argument with one of my roommates about how much money you’d have if you had a nickel for every time someone said “If I had a nickel for every time X happened … .” To be honest, I forget which side I was on — see the raison d’être of this column — but it was either “Nobody actually says that phrase IRL” or “You’d be Warren Buffett rich.” It really could go either way.
If I had a nickel for every time someone said “If I had a nickel,” how much money would I make in a year?
To figure this out, we’re going to need to estimate a couple of things. We’ll need to know how often people use the phrase. We’ll have to estimate how many words people use in a year. And then we’ll have to scale that up for everyone in the United States (I’m going to stick to Americans, partially because idioms don’t necessarily translate to different countries, but mostly because I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones who have nickels).
I’m going to use a technique called Fermi estimation (I did the same when I estimated how many full-time marijuana dealers serve this fine nation). Essentially, we’re only really interested in the magnitude of different variables, and Fermi estimation is good for getting in the ballpark. For example, we’re not really interested in whether people use 13,000 words per day or 14,000 words per day. We’re interested in whether they use 1,000 words per day versus 10,000 words per day versus 100,000 words per day.
The goal isn’t to get an exact answer, just an answer that gives us a sense of what scale we’re on. Would I be a millionaire? A billionaire? Would I have bus fare?
So let’s check it out. For how often the phrase is used, I plugged “had a nickel for” into the Google n-grams viewer for American English. This will tell us the percentage of four-word phrases that are “had a nickel for” in Google’s data set of books. It’s obviously going to be small. “Had a nickel for” accounted for a mere 0.0000018380 percent of the four-word phrases in books published in 2008.
The number of four-word phrases a person says per day is slightly less than the total number of words people say per day. (This sentence alone contains six unique four-word phrases. We’ve got “this sentence alone contains,” “sentence alone contains six,” “alone contains six unique” and so on. We could get really into the nitty gritty here — the number of four-word phrases a person says per day is equal to the number of words he says minus three — but that’s overcomplicating. Remember, we’re just trying to get a vibe for the scope.)
The first study I saw about how much we talk seemed a bit hyperbolic, gender-skewed and clickbaity. But looking a little more, I found a Scientific American article about a study that found, on average, women said 16,215 words per day and men said 15,669. So let’s split the difference and estimate that Americans say an average of 15,942 words per day. This means in a non-leap year an American will say an average of 5,818,830 words. Since are about 322.4 million of us, we can estimate that the nation says 1,873,663,300,000,000 words — a mouthful.
So if we use 1.8 quadrillion words, and the number of four-word phrases is close to that, and 0.0000018380 percent of four-word phrases are “had a nickel for,” we can estimate the phrase is said about 34.4 million times per year.
And since the going rate for a nickel around these parts is 0.05 dollars, that would net me about $1.72 million, give or take.
Not bad. But I’d urge people to switch to “If I had a dollar … .”