A billion almost defies comprehension
In America, a billion has 9 zeros (1,000,000,000). Why does this word contain a "bi"
(indicating two), when there are three triplets of zeroes? And why does a billion have 12
zeroes (1,000,000,000,000) in Britain?
The aborigine of Australia
count: "One, two, many..." A
billion almost defies
The Andromeda galaxy has a mass of 300 billion Suns.
Image courtesy of NASA.
How large is an American billion?
Sure, you can write down a '1'
and follow it with 9 zeros but what
does that mean? Can you imagine
how big that number is?
Suppose you start counting NOW
(One, two...) and name a number
every second without stopping.
You will say "one billion" about 32 years later.
A conventional British billion is a thousand times bigger than an American billion. Thirty-two thousand years
to reach "one (British) billion", counting at one number per second.
You get the idea: a billion is such a large number it does not matter which definition you use,
American or British. Either way, it is difficult to imagine and discover its meaning. According to
Harold Jacobs (author of Mathematics, a Human Endeavor), that is why the Americans and the
British came up with two versions. Until recently, we had no need for such a big number. So we
have not agreed how to name it.
A "billion" is a relatively new word. The word, billion, was not in common use even as late as the
16th century. It comes from the Italian and is first found as bimillion, bilioni, and byllion. It
originally meant a million million, and in England and Germany it still does. That is the meaning
of the prefix bi: two "million" written side by side and meaning a million million.
"If you want to be a billionaire," advices William Morris, author of Morris Dictionary of Word
and Phrase Origins, "stay right here in America." It's a thousand times easier.
However, "the 'American' system is now standard use in British
government publications, and is becoming the norm in many other languages,"
reports AskOxford.com of Oxford Dictionaries. In fact, British primeminister Harold Wilson, in 1974, told the House of Commons that from then on UK
government statistics would use the 'short scale' (i.e., American) system.
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How many is a billion?
(Answered August 1999, Updated Nov. 13, 2007)