Why are the UK and American billions different?

07 February 2017

Share

Question

Tray - why are the English and American billions different to each other and how do they differ?

Answer

Chris Smith put this question to maths-man Tim Revell...

Tim - This is one of those issues that is surprisingly contentious considering how dull it really is. To talk you through what are the differences between the Americal billion and the good old fashioned British billion is when you think about how numbers go up - ten tens in one hundred, a thousand thousands in one million, and then what happens next is where things diverge.

In old fashioned British counting a million million used to be a billion. But in America this would be a trillion, so it’s actually a thousand million is a billion. So it’s true there’s no real logic in the American system but there’s also no real logic in the British one either. Because when you get to what is a British trillion, well it’s not a billion billion, it’s a million billion. So it breaks down in both cases.

But actually, now these two things are the same. In the 70s we decided that we’re going to have the same as the American billion and so, overnight, we had huge inflation and what used to be known as a billion became a trillion.

Richard - I’m totally confused. Is it something of just my age where people over 40 were told that there’s this different system?

Tim - In the UK, these things became standardised in the mid 70s, but the confusion has kept ever since. And I think partly in the UK we don’t really like taking things that are American so people fight against it but yeah, the correct way is a thousand million is a billion and, actually, neither of these things are American or British, we took both of these systems from France.

Chris - So they’ve got two system in operation?

Tim - I think in France they also use the same system that we all use now but they created them both and then, for a while, they used both systems but they distinguished between them by calling them the long scale system and the short scale system.

Comments

Add a comment