A Billion is a Billion?

by  Sam C. Chan

February 15, 2006

You'd think so. But, like many of your assumptions, it's false.

In American English, a billion means 1,000,000,000. That's 109 or 10 to
the 9th power in scientific terms.

In British English, a billion means 1,000,000,000,000. That's 1012
or 1,000x of the American version.

Shocking, I know... but true. I first discovered this about 25 years ago, when I came to the United States. Furthermore, the British trillion is a million times of its American counterpart! The wicked side of me is urging me to run for office, promising the American public I have a secret weapon (of mass deception) to shrink the U.S. budget and trade deficits overnight.

Somewhere: The "shame" of a nation.
Elsewhere: The "pride" of a nation.

Dubious. Dubious. Learn! TAGLINES

As a bilingual, quad-accent speaker, I could easily switch to my British accent and adopt the British term of "trillion." It'd instantly be sounding a million times better, and I'd not even be doing anything worst than the standard practices of my peers.

Value "American"
(échelle courte)
(échelle longue)
103 thousand thousand
106 million million
109 billion thousand million (milliard)
1012 trillion billion
1015 quadrillion thousand billion (billiard)
1018 quintillion trillion
1021 sextillion thousand trillion (trilliard)
1024 septillion quadrillion
1027 octillion thousand quadrillion (quadrilliard)
1030 nonillion quintillion
1033 decillion thousand quintillion (quintilliard)

"American" vs. "British" systems.

Both systems were actually invented by the French. Americans adopted the newer (1600s) short scale (échelle courte) system, while Britons adopted the older (1400s) long scale (échelle longue) one 2 decays earlier.  The French-based prefixes of bi, tri, quadr, quint, sext, sept, oct, non & dec; correspond to 2 ... 10.

In the "American" system, the numeric names are assigned at intervals of 3 orders of magnitude, vs. 6 in the "British" system. In other words, at intervals of thousands, as opposed to millions. In the "British" system, interim names are created by adding the prefix "thousand" to the name. e.g. Thousand million, which is a thousand times of million, and a thousandth of billion (British). Alternatively, it is known as milliard.

As you can see, thousand and million are equals across the 2 systems. Beyond that, the corresponding units get exponentially out-of-sync, hence cannot be compensated via a constant conversion factor. The British namesake unit is 1,000 times of the American counterpart at billion, and 1,000,000 times at trillion, and so on...

In the last two decades, there has been an effort in the British government to start adopting the short scale system of numeric names in their publications. With any luck, we should be seeing a unified system some time... within the next decillion years?

So, next time before you sign that cross-pond billion-dollar contract, be sure to spell out (numerically, not in English) exactly which "billion" you mean, or else you could risk short-changing yourself by 1,000 folds. My condolences, if this warning came too late for you.

Hey, cheer up! It's an easy mistake. If it helps making you feel better...  George W. Bush is well-known for not comprehending even the difference between millions and billions* within the American system. He's been documented using those 2 words interchangeably on numerous occasions. Tragically, this comedic fact exemplifies the wide-spread innumeracy in America.

When W. screws up, he could be screwing America 1000 times over.


NOTE: There should be absolutely no confusion between million and billion. That is simply a case of innumeracy. The ambiguity exists only between billion and trillion (and above). That's when one must clarify whether it's meant to be "American" or "British" system.

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