October 10, 2014

IE Questions: “What The Hell Is A Jigawatt?”

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Like most human beings ever, I love Back to the Future.

I spent countless hours of my childhood running around my backyard making crackly-swishing sounds, pretending to be behind the wheel of a souped-up time-traveling DeLorean (I was crushed to find out real DeLoreans don’t have giant exhaust vents attached to the vehicle’s rear). I probably watched those three classic films more than any others growing up – ok, besides maybe Jurassic Park and the first two Terminator movies.

(Let’s just say my parents didn’t censor much.)

One of my favorite things about those movies as an 8-year-old was they seemed so science-y, so rational. I really felt for 1950s Doctor Emmett L. Brown when he had to solve this engineering problem, as conveyed to him by the 1980s version of himself:

How is 1950s Doc Brown possibly going to generate “one-point-twenty-one jigawatts?!”

At least, that’s how he pronounces it: “Jigawatt.”

Marty McFly follows up with the deceptively astute question, “What the hell is a jigawatt?!”

What the hell, indeed.

One day, a few weeks back, I was daydreaming on the job (for just a minute, I swear) and it hit me: Doc Brown was talking about 1.21 gigawatts!

In this energy reporting gig, we talk about gigawatts like they’re goin’ outta style – even though they are definitely not. But everybody I know always pronounces the word with a hard “g,” like this:

And I had a little bit of a sinking feeling.

Was Doc Brown wrong? Did the brilliant linguistic coaches responsible for so many other beautifully-pronounced words in Back to the Future make a rookie mistake? Does the mispronunciation betray a pitiful naiveté in the entire film trilogy and, ultimately, the notions of time travel and fun all together?

Not so fast.

I was kicking around the internet and found this post on myfluxcapacitor.com (a site that, of course, exists):

I always figured that the word “Jigawatt”was made up just for the movie and meant to sound like a really large amount.  It wasn’t unit I started researching this flux capacitor replica project that I stumbled across a few references to the actual term.  It turns out that the original pronunciation of “Giga” was with the “j” sound (really a soft “g”).


The author pointed out that the Merriam-Webster website had two correct pronunciations for the word: A leading “j” and “g” are both acceptable.


The post contains an update saying Merriam-Webster dropped the pronunciation with the “g” – leaving only the “j” one – earlier this year.

And that’s true, look!

Mind blown.

Now, dictionary.com says “g”igawatt. The New Oxford American Dictionary accepts both.

I think I’ll probably stick with the hard “g” version.

But at least I have a renewed faith in Dr. Emmett Brown, and in time travel as a legitimate hobby – as long as you kind find enough energy.

Oh, and a definition:  A gigawatt is a unit of power equal to one billion watts.

  • Leon E Lewis

    It’s disheartening that someone who presumably specializes in technical reporting didn’t know this
    earlier…and that finding out was a “mindblowing” experience. Strikes me as a major blow to Inside Energy credibility.

    • Dan Boyce

      Hey Leon, I’m the reporter who wrote up this post. Thanks for your feedback, we do take it seriously.

      Our goal at Inside Energy is to report on energy in a way that is approachable to everyone. There’s a lot of energy reporting out there, but much of it is far too wonky for energy non-experts to appreciate. That’s what we’re trying to change with our reporting.

      A lighthearted tongue-in-cheek post is meant to help inspire interest in a subject many people pass over.

      Yet again, we’re happy you took the time to write us. I trust you’ll see if you look through our body of work, we tackle heady complicated issues as well.

      Check us out on Facebook or Twitter @InsideEnergyNow

      And, if you’d like to spend some more time examining our credibility, which we welcome, jump onto our newsletter list by following this link: