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In today’s Washington Post article titled “For federal workers, anxiety over a possible shutdown", I found a strange quote of number—‘a thousand and one questions.’ I understand it’s simply an exaggerated form of ‘a lot of questions.’

However, I’m curious to know why it is 1,001, not ‘hundreds’ or ‘numerous’ or even in round number? Is it simply a trope? Is ‘big number plus one’ well-accepted usage? Can I say ‘a hundred and one’ or ‘ten thousands one question’ when I have many questions?

The number, ‘a thousand and one’, is quoted in the following sentence:

The government could shut down in a week if Congress can’t reach a budget deal. And the Obama administration hasn’t told workers what a shutdown would look like — who will be asked to come to work and who will be told to stay home. Rank-and-file federal workers have a thousand and one questions. Kane, Energy’s human resources chief, is fielding many of them.

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Because it is one too many questions than what they can handle. –  Lie Ryan Apr 2 '11 at 5:06
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4 Answers

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This comes from the oriental stories collected in One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. It is just a well-known example of a very high number, used in various contexts; it always refers to these tales. This one-up is occasionally used with numbers other than 1000, but even then it is a reference to the tales of 1001 Nights. In any case, 1001 just means "a great many". Note the contrast with 101, which usually means "an introduction": this comes from the regularly used custom of numbering an introductory course at university The Greek Accent 101, etc.

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Similar to the number 40 days in the Bible referring to a long time, not necessarily 40. –  Sam Apr 2 '11 at 2:07
    
It never came up to my mind that ‘a thousand and one’ questions was associated with 1001 Arabian Nights Stories, because 1001 nights is the length of time and 1001 questions is the number of stuff. Beside I’m too old to imagine Arabian Night Stories in association with the number 1001. Anyway thank you for your input 101 times. It was a new learning to me. –  Yoichi Oishi Apr 2 '11 at 4:07
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@Yoichi Oishi, @Cerberus: If 101, it might also be a reference to "101 Dalmation" –  Lie Ryan Apr 2 '11 at 5:03
    
@Lie Ryan.Ah, 101 Dalmatian! The Disney’s animation was popular under the translated title, 101 Puppies here in Japan. I didn’t know it’s also an example of ‘big number plus one.’ –  Yoichi Oishi Apr 2 '11 at 6:51
    
101 somethings generally means a large (possibly exhaustive?) number of somethings - such as "101 Things To Do Before You Die", whereas Something 101 generally means an introduction to something - except for "Room 101" which is something completely different. –  neil Aug 12 '11 at 11:09
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Doesn't this go back to the 1,001 Arabian Nights?

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The idiom a thousand and one is used to signify a great number (often exaggerated). Hundred and million can also be used in the same manner:

a hundred/thousand/million and one
very many
I can't stand around chatting—I've got a hundred and one things to do this morning.Cambridge

The Macmillan Dictionary also gives a nice definition:

a hundred/thousand/million etc and one
used for emphasizing that there are a very large number of people or things.Macmillan

An old English proverb goes thus:

There is always a thousand and one things to do.

This speaks to the belief that there is never a reason for one to be idle—there is always something to do or be done. My mother said this a lot while we (her children) were much younger, and I used to wonder, as well: Why ‘a thousand and one’, and not ‘a thousand’ or any other number?

The phrase, a thousand and one, most likely originates from the title of the famous collection: One Thousand and One Nights, now commonly called the Arabian Nights.

The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his new bride. He is shocked to discover that his brother's wife is unfaithful; discovering his own wife's infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her executed: but in his bitterness and grief decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins (and only begins) a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights.Wikipedia

Whether or not there were actually 1,001 stories, the idea is Scheherazade needs to keep the king continually entertained in order to stay alive. If she could, she would delay her execution indefinitely. This is how one thousand and one came to acquire this quality of near-infinity or endlessness.

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It turns out there are a number of reasons 1,001 is an important number. Others have mentioned 1,001 Arabian Nights, but probably not many know the following:

In the Mawlawiyyah order of Sufi Islam, a novice must complete 1001 days of prayer before becoming a dada, or junior teacher of the faith.

Also

A formulaic Arabic way to say thanks is "1,000 thanks and thank you" (1,001 thanks).

Mathematically, 1,001 is also a sphenic number, which is a positive integer that is the product of three different prime factors. Other sphenic numbers include 42, which is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

It's also a pentagonal number, which is a figurate number representing a pentagon.

As well, it's popular for being, well, popular. According to WordIQ:

About twice as many books currently in print start with 1001 as with 1000. This marketing scheme is used to imply that the customer is getting a little extra information beyond books that have only 1000 items.

The concept of "a little extra" I think explains the usage. You're getting the full amount plus one, so there can be no doubt that you got everything there was to get and then some. The "plus one" trope figures in other numbers as well, including "baker's dozen" (12 + 1), 101, and the formulaic a year and a day, which was a common length of time for contracts, minor criminal sentences, banishments, and the like.

What it means, when you get right down to it, is "unequivocally the full amount."

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(...) have only 1000 items. What is that referring to? Pages?? –  advs89 Apr 2 '11 at 3:23
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Books on the model of 1,001 Ways to Do Something Important, 1,001 Cake Recipes, 1,001 Math Questions for your Pre-Schooler (all of these are made up, but you get the idea). –  Robusto Apr 2 '11 at 3:39
    
oh ok... I didn't realize those were so common. –  advs89 Apr 2 '11 at 4:47
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And you get "Plus One" for such an informative answer! –  mickeyf Apr 2 '11 at 19:33
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