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Why are there fewer noughts in a billion than there used to be?

Simon Read

billion 300x179 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.

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  • tombecker76

    So…an English speaking country (followed by all the others eventually) started using wrong definitions, whereas ALL of the other countries of the world “still” using the correct one? I am not sure to understand the use of that “still”, in this case.

    If anything, it is the English speaking world “still” not being fully aware of the rational behind some numerical definitions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/noel.ross.52 Noel Ross

    So if the french call a Million Million a Billion = 1 + 12 zeros (1,000,000,000,000) What does a french Trillion equal? (a tri Million? 1 + 18 zeros [1, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000] ???)

  • LeoSun75

    how does the above correlate with million, billion etc?

    presumably:

    million = mega
    billion = giga (but which billion)
    quadrillion = tera

    or is this wrong?

    Also, why do we have two separate naming systems and where did they come from?

  • http://twitter.com/masabaer Eric Masaba

    Our Gallic chums across the Channel also have the word “Milliard” for a billion. Shortened to “Yard” in CityBoy parlance, meaning that if you “sold a yard of something” you are talking BILLIONS in the American sense. The same lovely jubbly CityBoys also don’t even bother with the suffix million. If they are talking Twelve quid or Twelve bucks, it is clear they really mean 12 million of whichever quantity. Only the merely unaware think otherwise.

  • maias

    Isn’t there a story about Pres. George W Bush asking about daily casualties of his ‘Coalition of the Willing’ during the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq:
    On being told that three Brazilians had been killed he reportedly asked :”How many zeroes is that?”

  • 12758

    They come from the International System of Units (abbreviated SI from French: Le Système international d’unités) and are the standard scientific notation. The naming system was taken from the Greek.

    Mega – comes from the Greek μέγας, meaning ‘great’
    Giga is derived from the Greek γίγας, meaning ‘giant’.
    Tera is derived from the Greek τέρας meaning ‘monster’
    Peta is derived from the Greek πέντε, meaning ‘five’
    Exa from the Greek ἕξ, used as a prefix ἑξά-, meaning ’six’
    Zetta comes from the Greek ἑπτά (hepta meaning 7) but with the consonants pt reduced to tt as in Italian and the letter z was added to run through the alphabet backwards. which is why the next prefix starts with a ‘y’ and has some relationship to 8 in the Greek.

    en dot wikipedia dot org/wiki/Metric_prefix

  • 404443

    French: Billion purposely formed in 16th century denote the second power of a million (by substituting B-prefix for the initial letters); trillion and quadrillion being similarly formed denote its 3rd and 4th powers.

    The name appears not to have been adopted in England before the end of the 17th century (see quote from Locke). Subsequently the application of the word was changed by french arithmeticians, figures being divided in numeration into groups of three, instead of sixes, so that F.billion, trillion, denoted not the second and third powers of a million, but a thousand millions and a thousand thousand millions.

    In the 19th century, the U. S. adopted the French convention, but Britain retained the original and etymological use (to which France reverted in 1948).

    Since 1951, the U.S.value, a thousand millions, has been increasingly used in Britain, especially technical writing and, more recently journalism, but the older sense ‘a million millions’ is still common.

    1. orig and still commonly in Great Britain: a million millions. (= U.S. trillion)

    O.E.D. second edition OUP 1989

    ISBN 0-19-861214-1 (vol.II)

    ISBN 0-19-861186-2

    Milliard

    French: milliard, f.mille thousand.) A thousand millions.

  • 404443

    The OED of 1989 explains the reason, but current versions of the OED use the American meaning with no explanation that the alternative English version, which is also used in a number of other European languages) is not being used.

    QUOTE

    French: Billion purposely formed in 16th century denote the second power of a million (by substituting B-prefix for the initial letters); trillion and quadrillion being similarly formed denote its 3rd and 4th powers.

    The name appears not to have been adopted in England before the end of the 17th century (see quote from Locke). Subsequently the application of the word was changed by french arithmeticians, figures being divided in numeration into groups of three, instead of sixes, so that F.billion, trillion, denoted not the second and third powers of a million, but a thousand millions and a thousand thousand millions.

    In the 19th century, the U. S. adopted the French convention, but Britain retained the original and etymological use (to which France reverted in 1948).

    Since 1951, the U.S.value, a thousand millions, has been increasingly used in Britain, especially technical writing and, more recently journalism, but the older sense ‘a million millions’ is still common.

    1. orig and still commonly in Great Britain: a million millions. (= U.S. trillion)

    O.E.D. second edition OUP 1989

    ISBN 0-19-861214-1 (vol.II)

    ISBN 0-19-861186-2

    Milliard

    French: milliard, f.mille thousand.) A thousand millions.

    End

  • tombecker76

    It ended even before your pointless wikipedia search, since it happens I am Italian and I speak French better than English.

    I didn’t need to look for anything, since I have been knowing the meaning of milliard (“Miliardo”, in Italian) for the last 30 years of my life.

    It happens as well that Latin languages have been around for about 2.000 years. I’d doubt it will ever change.

    Btw, what are all those Spanish signs in southern USA saying? :)

  • Finrod Felagund

    German uses it too, along with billiard for a thousand billion, etc.


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