When is a billion not a billion?

When it’s a trillion.

Last year in Berlin, I got into an argument with an Irishman about whether a pint was bigger or smaller than a half liter. I, with much conviction (and a couple of pints in me), argued that it was smaller. He, with equal conviction (and consumption), countered that it was larger. And we got nowhere. Until I discovered that there are in fact two pints: the British pint (20 oz) and the American pint (16 oz).

OK, rookie mistake, temporarily confusing, no big deal. But now I’ve come upon something far more confounding. (And apologies in advance to anyone for whom this is already obvious.)

European leaders are looking to expand their bailout fund to 2 trillion euros. Anticipating future conversations in German in which I’ll be discussing this stuff, I wanted to make sure I had my terminology right, and so I looked up the German translation for “trillion.” There were two entries:

1. Billion

2. Trillion

This was puzzling. So I clicked on the German word “Trillion” to see how my friend dict.cc would translate it into English. Again, two entries:

1. trillion

2. quintillion

Right. I decided to turn to my favorite German experts, my parents. (My dad, for those who don’t know, is a native German; my mom does her best impression of one and has spent most of her life teaching and translating from German.) My dad’s response: “In my times there were no trillion funds.”

Luckily, my mom pointed me to a link from the explainer of all things, Wikipedia. And the answer is that just as Europeans and Americans are divided over weights and measures by metric vs. English and over temperatures by Celsius vs. Fahrenheit, we’re also split over the linguistics of numbers (or, I should say, of really big numbers: We’re fine up through 999,999,999).

There are two systems, the long and short scales. We Americans use the short scale, by which each new term is a thousand times the previous. So a billion is a thousand million, and a trillion is a thousand billion, and so forth. But most Europeans use the long scale, by which each new term signifies a million-fold increase over the previous one. So to the Danes, say, a billion is a million millions, or what we call a trillion; and a trillion is a million billions (in turn each a million millions), or a quintillion. Our “billion” is their “thousand million,” or “milliard”; our “quadrillion” is their “thousand billion,” or “billiard.” And when they want to play billiards? Let’s not go there.

As usual, the poor Brits are stuck somewhere in the middle, having mostly abandoned the long scale (which, like the metric alternative they’ve shunned, is also called the English system) but not quite fully adopted the short scale, with nothing but their pints to console them.


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