"billion": a U.K. view(Miscellany)
by Ken Moore, assisted by Olivier Bettens The U.S. and traditional British names for large numbers are as follows: U.S. Traditional British 10^6 million million 10^9 billion thousand million or milliard 10^12 trillion billion 10^15 quadrillion thousand billion 10^18 quintillion trillion 10^21 sextillion thousand trillion 10^24 septillion quadrillion 10^27 octillion thousand quadrillion 10^30 nonillion quintillion 10^33 decillion thousand quintillion 10^36 undecillion sextillion 10^39 duodecillion thousand sextillion 10^42 tredecillion septillion 10^45 quattuordecillion thousand septillion 10^48 quindecillion octillion 10^51 sexdecillion thousand octillion 10^54 septendecillion nonillion 10^57 octodecillion thousand nonillion 10^60 novemdecillion decillion 10^63 vigintillion thousand decillion . . . . . . 10^303 centillion . . . . . . 10^600 centillion The word "billion" has existed in France since the 15th century. Opinions differ as to its initial meaning: one possibility is that it meant 10^12 to mathematicians and 10^9 to others. The first use in England recorded in the OED is by Locke in 1690: the quotation clearly shows that for Locke it meant 10^12. This remained the standard British meaning until the middle of the 20th century. Early in the 18th century, French arithmeticians revised its meaning to 10^9, and the U.S., acquiring the word directly from the French, took this meaning also. French has the word "milliard", also meaning 10^9, which had largely displaced "billion" by the beginning of the 20th century. ("Milliard" is given in English dictionaries, though most of the few people who know it would think of it as a French word.) By 1948, the use of large numbers in the sciences and the declining value of the franc led the French Weights and Measures conference to recommend the return of "billion" to its original meaning of 10^12. This became official policy in 1961. For more information on international usage, see http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/numbers.htm. By this time, the British had been introduced to the U.S. meaning. MEU warns us that the usages differ; MEU2 (1965) suggests: "Since _billion_ in our sense is useless except to astronomers, it is a pity that we do not conform [to the U.S. meaning]". The British Government took this advice in 1974, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced to the House of Commons that the meaning of "billion" in papers concerning Government statistics would thenceforth be 10^9, in conformity with U.S. usage. Despite this, the U.S. meaning is still rare outside journalism and finance, its introduction having served merely to create confusion. Throughout the U.K., a common response to the question "What do you understand by 'a billion'?" would be: "Well, I mean a million million, but I often don't know what other people mean." Few schoolchildren are confident of the meaning, though, again, 10^12 seems to be preferred. Many well-educated adults, aware of both meanings, either avoid the term altogether or use it only in the unambiguous phrases "English billion" and "American billion". English-speaking South Africans, Australians, and New Zealanders are similarly reluctant to use a term that has become ambiguous. Scientists have long preferred to express numbers in figures rather than in words, so it is easy to avoid "billion" in contexts where precision is required. The plural is still used freely with the colloquial meaning of "a very large number". Publications consulted: OED, Editions 1 and 2. Robert, Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise. P Pamart, "A propos d'une reforme des mesures legales", in "Vie et Langage", (125)1962, pp 435-437.
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