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How much is a billion?

billionHow much is a billion?

In American a “billion” is one thousand million (ten to the power nine).

In most of Europe it’s one million million (a trillion in America).

In England a billion used to mean a million million, like the rest of Europe, but these days it is almost always one thousand million, like in America.

So beware of translating “billion” as “billion”! I have read in Spanish that the age of the universe is some “13 billones de años”. That is one thousand times older than it really is!

Many European languages (Fr: milliard, DE: Milliarde, IT: miliardo) have a “milliard”, which is 1,000 million, like the English billion. Others use “thousand million” (ES: mil millones, PT: mil milhões).

The Chinese traditionally count in four powers of ten, rather than three. Their word “wàn” means ten thousand, so a million is 100 wàn. And yí = wàn times wàn, so a billion is shí yì, or 10 times 10,000 times 10,000 = 10 to the power 9.

With a bit of care, it’s not too difficult to translate numbers, remembering also to swap commas and points for European languages, and to put the currency sign in the right place.

$1.2 million -> 1,2 million de $ (French)
$1.2 billion -> 1,2 Milliarden $ (German)
1,2 mil millones de $ (Spanish) -> $1.2 billion (English)
One trillion (English) – un bilione (Italian)

I came upon a curious case recently. The English number was “3,582 billion” (3582 x 10 to the power 9). The Spanish translation looked the same: “3,582 billones”. For once this was correct, for the Spanish means 3.582 x 10 to the power 12).

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