In this globalized world, you would think that agreement on the definition of large numbers would be fundamental. Not so in the case of the word “billion.” Historically, in British English the word billion meant one million million; in American English it meant – and still does – one thousand million. That is, the British billion was 1,000 times larger than the American one, equal to an American trillion. For this, we can blame the French.
The word billion (or byllion), meaning a million million — the word derives from bi (two) + million — started being used in France in the 1680s and was adopted by the UK and Germany. Later, France altered the meaning to a thousand million. The two systems were distinguished by calling them the long scale (million million) and the short scale (thousand million).
Partly because of the influence of France during the American War of Independence, the US subsequently adopted the short scale. In 1948 France reverted to the long scale, back in line with the system used in the UK and Germany. However, in 1974, due to the rising importance of the US in the world economy, and the obvious danger of having different interpretations of an increasingly useful measure of large numbers, the UK government decided to fall in line with the US. In the UK, we now follow the short scale system used in the US.
(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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