Stuart Cheshire on "Billions"

What is a Billion?

Since coming to America in 1990, I've never been unable to understand this insistence on redefining what a "billion" is, unless it's to make the national debt seem even bigger.

In England, a million is (or at least it was) a thousand squared. A billion is a million squared. A trillion is a million cubed. It's all very logical. The prefix "mono" means "one", "bi" means "two", and "tri" means "three":

one  million = 1,000,000                                     = one million ^ 1
one  billion = a million million         = a million squared = one million ^ 2
one trillion = a million million million = a million cubed   = one million ^ 3

In the USA, the prefix "bi" seems to be used to mean 1.5, and "tri" means 2:

one  million = 1,000,000
one  billion = one million ^ 1.5
one trillion = one million ^ 2

Can anyone explain the logic in this? A biplane is not an aeroplane with one and a half wings. A tricycle doesn't have two wheels. In fact it has three. And a bicycle has two wheels, not one and a half. This must be the "new math" everyone keeps talking about.

Here's one reply I got:

Oh, you English people are just silly. Since when does "tri" mean
"cubed" and "bi" mean "squared"? They mean "three of" and "two of,"
respectively, of course. By your system, a bicycle would have only one
wheel (1^2), and a tricycle would have only one wheel (1^3). It's your
English system that's all screwed up.

(I'm naturally neglecting an explanation of why a "billion" doesn't mean
"two of a million.")


So what name do you give to 1,000,000,000, if it's not a billion?
Barry E. Brown                                  Internet:
Sacramento Network Access
System Administrator/Technical Support/Engineering
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I know this is in good humour, but here's my semi-serious reply:

What name do you give to     1,000,000?      Answer: A million
What name do you give to     7               Answer: Seven
What name do you give to     7,000,000?      Answer: Seven million
What name do you give to    10               Answer: Ten
What name do you give to    10,000,000       Answer: Ten million
What name do you give to   100               Answer: A hundred
What name do you give to   100,000,000?      Answer: A hundred million
What name do you give to 1,000               Answer: A thousand
What name do you give to 1,000,000,000?      Answer: A thousand million

Does that answer your question? 1,000,000,000 is a thousand million.

Finally, what name do you give to 1,000,000,000,000?

Answer: A million million, which is clumsy, hence "billion" as an abbreviation for "million twice".

I still stand by my logic, although I'm told that since I left England, even the BBC has given up its standards. Oh well, that's progress, I suppose.

At least the BBC hasn't compromised yet on the fact that the third millennium begins on 1st January 2001, not on 1st January 2000 like the rest of the uneducated masses think... (Don't make me explain it :-)

Another attentive reader sent me the following excerpt from the Oxford English Dictionary:

I checked my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, and according to their
explanation, the problem was caused by the French. Of course, we should have
suspected this.

    Billion [a. F. billion, purposely formed in 16th c. to denote the
    second power of a MILLION. (by substituting BI- prefix for the
    initial letters), trillion and quadrillion being similarly formed to
    denote its 3rd and 4th powers. The name appears not to have been
    adopted in England before the end of the 17th c. Subsequently the
    application of the word was changed by French arithmeticians,
    figures being divided in numeration into groups of threes, instead
    of sixes, so that F. billion, trillion now denote not the second and
    third powers of a million, but a thousand millions and a thousand
    thousand millions.  Eng. retains the original and etymological use.]

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