Translating large numbers

Is trillion the new billion? in the BBC news magazine looks at various aspects of the large numbers. Historically, they were first documented in French:

The words billion and trillion, or variations on them, were first documented by French mathematicians in the 15th Century.

Then bought to England via John Locke in 1690:

as a useful term for avoiding “the often repeating of millions of millions of millions etc”. The French had purposely coined “billion” a 100 or so years earlier to denote the second power of a million (“bi” being the standard prefix for two)

But it’s usage was morphed separately by the British and Americans to mean the second power of a million and one thousand million respectively until

in 1974, Harold Wilson pledged that the British government would adopt the “short scale” naming system used in the US to avoid ambiguity. As a result, the value of billion is now generally understood to mean a thousand millions.

Most probably because it’s hard to imagine even needing a number as large as a million million. But of course, with the advent of advances in computing in particular, things that were once easily measured in the thousands – like MBs of storage available for instance – are now measured in much much larger numbers.

One way to enhance understanding is to divide a big number by the number of people affected, he says, so if the population of the eurozone is about 330m, then a trillion shared represents about 3,000 euros for each person. Another way is to count the numbers one at a time, one per second. A million seconds is 11 days, a billion seconds is about 32 years and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years.

Traditionally trillion was used as a euphemism for “a shockingly large number”, but that usage no longer has resonance given that it can be used in regular conversation without batting an eye – as seems to happen when discussion trade deficits or governmental budgets these days.

As well as the mathematical reality that numbers really are getting bigger, there is also a wilful repetition of words like trillion, says lexicographer Susie Dent.

“The use of ‘trillions’ in our general conversation is part of a trend towards linguistic inflation or ‘bigging up’.

“Some words are used to the point of exhaustion and need replacing with others in order to maintain the strength of expression. So ‘heroes’ are now ‘superheroes’, we’re not just angry any more, we are ‘incandescent with rage’, and ‘tragedy’ is losing its power because it’s used for less than tragic events.

And words which previously had sufficient power in themselves are attracting prefixes such as uber- or mega- in order to re-energise them, she adds.

For reference, the short scale represents numbers as follows:

The new trillions

  • Trillion – 1 + 12 zeros (1 000 000 000 000, the “long scale” “billion”)
  • Quadrillion – 1 + 15 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Quintillion – 1 + 18 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Sextillion – 1 + 21 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Septillion – 1 + 24 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Octillion – 1 + 27 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Nonillion – 1 + 30 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Decillion – 1 + 33 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)