million
n. The cardinal number 1,000,000
billion
n. The cardinal number 1,000,000,000
trillion
n. The cardinal number 1,000,000,000,000

We’re all pretty familiar with millions and billions and trillions. But what you may not know is that until 1974, a British billion and an American billion were two very different numbers.

Like many mathematical and scientific etymologies, this can be traced back to France1. The French échelle courte, or short scale, is the system with which all Americans are familiar, wherein each named number is 1000 times the previous. But for a very long time indeed, British and some other European countries used the long scale (échelle longue), meaning that each named number was 1,000,000 times the previous number. Like this:

Long and Short scales
Name Long Short
Million 1,000,000 1,000,000
Billion 1,000,000,000,000 1,000,000,000
Trillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 1,000,000,000,000
Quadrillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 1,000,000,000,000,000
Quintillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 1,000,000,000,000,000,000

In fact, much of continental Europe still uses the long scale; Britain officially switched over in 1975 when then-PM Harold Wilson converted the Treasury to use the American (short scale) billion (and, presumably, trillion, quadrillion, &c.), ostensibly because of the U.S.’s influence in matters of finance and economy.

Historically speaking, the gaps in the long scale (the “thousand millions” or “thousand billions”) have been filled by milliard, billiard, and trilliard, &c., which are obviously derived from the French. Oddly enough, the British eschewed these filler words, preferring instead the more verbose “thousand millions” and “thousand billions” and so forth.

You might notice that pattern to these big numbers, and that is usually an identifiable Latinate prefix (bi-, tri-, quad-, quint-, sext-) with -illion tacked on the end. In fact, most of these are sort of derived from million, which is in fact the Latin mille (thousand) and -ion, which is merely an intensifier. Literally, million means “big thousand.” Since million seems to have been the original “big number,” so to speak, it doesn’t follow the pattern that marks its successors—otherwise it would be unillion or something like that. You can also see million‘s insofar as the normal suffix doesn’t contain the two L’s, and yet they too are applied to successor words—otherwise we’d have bion, trion, &c.

While you’ll still find devoted fans of the long scale, part of its eventual decline (besides U.S. influence, of course) was its impracticality. Since most explicit usage of these descriptive words such as billion (as opposed to writing the number out as 1,000,000,000 or 109) is colloquial in nature, one images that folk would have little occasion to use any words beyond perhaps a billion (if that).

Fun fact: the largest named number (that I’ve found) on the short scale is the tremilliatrecendotrigintillion, which is a 1 followed by 9999 zeroes. More traditionally, I’ve seen the largest number identified as a centillion, or 10303 (10600 on the long scale).

  1. Which, you’ll remember, was the originator of the metric system[]
§3037 · November 26, 2008 · Tags: , ·

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