My goal to learn something new every day
What is a 1 followed by 9 zeros?
A billion, right? Well yes and no. You may have answered yes if you were born in Britain in the last 50 years or so and/or were brought up in an English-speaking country. Your answer may have been different, however, if you were born quite some time ago in the UK or come from continental Europe, or perhaps speak a European language. This post is yet again another one of my up until today… posts.
When I learned to count, probably some 25 years ago, I was quite pleased with myself. It’s something that pretty much anyone can do in their native language, and recognizing numbers is a basic skill. All over the English-speaking world, we think of a billion as a 1 followed by 9 zeros (or 1 × 109 in standard form). After going through the basic units of one, ten and hundred, we’ve all probably taught students that we count in the following way…
…where we have a new word for multiples of a 1000. But from a linguistic point of view, that doesn’t really make sense. We are we using words that start with bi- and tri-, which we all know mean two and three respectively, but where do two and three come into it? Wouldn’t it make sense if a billion meant a million million and a trillion just meant a million million million? Well, up until 1974 in the UK, it meant exactly that!
Today (in English-speaking countries), we use what is known as the short scale of counting, where 1,000,000 is a million, 1,000,000,000 a billion, 1,000,000,000,000 a trillion and so on. The United States has always used the short scale of counting, but through most of the 19th and 20th centuries the UK used the long scale. In the long scale, the words million, billion and trillion mean the following:
This now makes sense, from a linguistic standpoint, bi and tri actually mean something now. In the 20th century, people in Britain began to use the short scale more and more, which led to the British government accepting it as the standard in 1974 (thanks America). But on the surface, perhaps it kind of makes sense because in the long scale the gap between a million and a billion is pretty large, how can we describe it? There is, however, actually a word that speakers of European languages might be familiar with: a milliard.
A milliard is what we today call a billion on the short scale. Cognates of milliard still exist in many European languages such as French (milliard), Czech (miliardy), Croatian (milijarde), German (milliarde), Italian (miliardo) and so on*. This is why I imagine that continental Europeans are probably laughing at my ignorance right about now.
Confused? Here’s a table to help you out.
You might be thinking, I get why billion and trillion were called as such in the long scale, but what about million, where does that get it’s name from? Well, mille, you may know, means a thousand (as in millimetre: 1000th of a metre), and million literally meant a great thousand.
*All translations from Google translate, so apologies for any mistakes.