Why are there fewer noughts in a billion than there used to be?
My mention of trillion in last Saturday’s Your Money comment column prompted a question from reader Andy Laurie.
I wrote that “a trillion is a thousand billion. So £4trillion looks like this: 4,000,000,000,000.”
Andy responded: “I always understood a billion in English to be a million million and in American to be a thousand million. Nowadays it seems a billion in English is only a thousandth of what it used be and I see you use a trillion to mean what I would consider a billion.
“No wonder so many numbers sound so high. When politicians, bankers and others are referring to billions and trillions, how do we know how much they mean?
“Do you know how this loss of value has come about, or why?” he asks?
I turned to Twitter to find out, publishing a tweet asking the same question. A couple of knowledgeable responses from helpful folk later and I had discovered that it seems we have former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to blame for the official change in meaning.
Hansard reports that on 20 December 1974 the then PM was asked to ensure that Ministers and mandarins used the traditional British meaning of a million million to mean a billion and not the American use of a thousand million.
He replied in the negative, explaining: “The word ‘billion’ is now used internationally to mean thousand million and it would be confusing if British Ministers were to use it in any other sense”.
So the decision was taken at the top level almost 40 years ago.
To clear up any remaining confusion here’s a list of all the big numbers and the number of noughts you need when writing them down:
Thousand = 1 + 3 zeros (1,000)
Million = 1 + 6 zeros (1,000,000)
Billion = 1 + 9 zeros (1,000,000,000)
Trillion = 1 + 12 zeros (1,000,000,000,000)
Quadrillion = 1 + 15 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000)
Quintillion = 1 + 18 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000,000)
Sextillion = 1 + 21 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
Septillion = 1 + 24 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
Octillion = 1 + 27 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
Nonillion = 1 + 30 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
Decillion = 1 + 33 zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)
However to confuse things again, while Britain has adopted the American usage of a thousand million and so on, along with Australia, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Ireland, English Canada and others, several key countries still use the old traditional million million usage including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, French Canada and others.
So despite Harold Wilson’s best intentions back in 1974, international ambiguity remains.
Incidentally the word “billion” was coined by the French in the 15th century to denote the second power of a million with ‘bi’ being the standard prefix for two.Tagged in: billions, millions, money, trillions
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