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How much is a Billion?

How much is a Billion? (Aside from being a very large number!)

There are two clear definitions of a Billion in English:

  • 1,000,000,000, i.e. one thousand million, or 109 (ten to the ninth power), as defined on the short scale. This is the only current meaning in English.
  • 1,000,000,000,000, i.e. one million million, or 1012 (ten to the twelfth power), as defined on the long scale. This number, which is one thousand times larger than the short scale billion, is now referred to in English as one trillion.

However, for extra confusion, this second definition is the historical meaning in English for the word “billion” (with the exception of the United States). A meaning which was still in official use in British English until 1974. Curiously, the American system for denominations above one million was modelled on the French system, but in 1948 the French system was changed to correspond to the German and British systems.

How much is a Billion in mainland Europe?

In most of Europe a billion is one million million (a trillion in English).

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 (French: milliard, German: Milliarde, Italian: miliardo) have a “milliard”, which is 1,000 million. Others use “thousand million” (Spanish: mil millones, Portuguese: mil milhões). Swedish, Tajik, Turkish, Ukrainian and Uzbek — use milliard, or a related word, for the short scale billion, and billion (or a related word) for the long scale billion. As such, for these languages a billion is a thousand times larger than the modern English billion.

How much is a Billion in China?

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 = wàn times wàn, so a billion is shí yì, or 10 times 10,000 times 10,000 = 109.

Translating numbers

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 109). The Spanish translation looked the same: “3,582 billones”. For once this was correct, for the Spanish means 3.582 x 1012).

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