I know that a rose by any other name is still a rose, but why are a billion roses in the U.S. 999,000,000 fewer roses than I'd get if I asked for the same amount in the U.K.? Is it only the sun-deprived Brits that count up to nine hundred thousand million before getting to a billion, or are we Americans alone in sticking to both the "standard" measurement system and our counting method?
-- David, Spring Valley
I'm often told I've answered questions people didn't even know they had. Suspect this one qualifies. Unless you've inherited gobs of cash from Lord and Lady Locknut, some distant British relatives, how would you know that what we call a billion, the British call a thousand million? What the British call a billion, we call a trillion? Actually, make that "called." Grandma Alice tells me that even the BBC has given up their traditional usage and capitulated to the American way of counting things. (Grandma figures if she turns up the BBC loud enough, it will drown out Pa Alice's Cops marathons and make the Neighborhood Watch think we're just eccentric geniuses, not Persons of Interest.) Well, as we so often say, blame it on the French.
Or maybe the Italians, if you are tired of that "patriot fries" business. The word "million" was originally cooked up by the only 14th-century businessmen rich enough to need a number that high. What Italians meant by "million" was 1000 to the first power, 1000 squared, 1,000,000. So far so good. But in the 15th Century, when they needed even bigger numbers for even bigger fortunes, they applied the same logic. A billion became a million squared (a million million). A trillion was a million to the third power (a million million million). In this system, 900,000,000 would have to be called nine hundred thousand million. Italy's trading partners in Europe adopted the definitions.
Eventually, the French, who have always been good at math, decided the whole exponential system was silly. In the 1700s, they redefined million, trillion, etc., to reflect how many groups of three places are in a number (rather than the old system's six places): a thousand has one group of three, a million has two, a billion has three, etc. Post-Revolution America loved everything French and hated everything British, ergo, 1,000,000,000 is now one billion. (In England this number would have been called one milliard. Hey, I think Grandma Alice has a cousin named Milliard. Yeah, Milliard Alice. Sends a Christmas card every year.) Germany and many other European and American countries use or have used the "British" system; but since American English is the standard for business communication, the American definition of "billion" will prevail.