Thursday, March 30, 2006

Billions ?

I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, about the disparity between the American and European definitions for a billion !

In the U.S., it's a thousand million, or one followed by nine zeros. But in much of Europe, a "billion" -- or a word spelled similarly -- is a million million, or one followed by 12 zeros. The disparity grows along with the size of the numbers: A trillion stateside is a million million, but it's a million times greater in Germany, for instance.
And this was pretty interesting as well...
The conflict arose from "an entire perversion" of the original meaning of the names for large numbers, according to an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a change "condemned by the greatest lexicographers," mathematicians John Horton Conway and Richard K. Guy wrote in "The Book of Numbers." About 500 years ago, French mathematicians Nicolas Chuquet and Estienne de la Roche put forward the definitions now standard in most of Europe. They used Latin prefixes for one, two, three and so on, and the scheme had a pleasing symmetry: An increase of one in the prefix meant multiplying the number by a million. To find the number of zeros in a number, take the prefix and multiply it by six. So a million had six zeros, a billion had 12 and a trillion had 18. Numbers below a million were spelled out -- 135,000, for instance -- so why not call 135,000,000,000 135,000 million? The scheme was eventually extended to centillion, or one followed by 600 zeros.
Bernard Comrie, now the director of the department of linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, had an interesting experiment in mind...
Noting that the U.K. had largely shifted to the U.S. definition following a 1974 announcement by the government of prime minister Harold Wilson, Prof. Comrie wrote, "I speculate on how a British bank would interpret a cheque made out for one billion pounds. Unfortunately, the cost of such an experiment would exceed the resources I have allocated to this research. Suggestions for funding will, of course, be gratefully received."

But the banks apparently put that one experiment down with...
The Royal Bank of Scotland defines billion as one followed by nine zeros, spokesman Mike Keohane told me, "which is the accepted standard in the U.K." David Dooks, director of statistics for the British Bankers' Association, confirmed to me that British banks define "billion" the American way.
So, it is only the public who are at fault for thinking that a billion is a million millions ! Wonder if that is why many Europeans are snooty about their bank balances !

Check out Wikipedia's entry on the names of large numbers.

No comments: