Sunday, April 5

A trillion just isn't what it used to be

All those trillions spinning around the G-20, with an extra $US1 trillion for the International Monetary Fund to help kickstart the world economy . The mind boggles at the magnitude of these sums.

But praise be they weren't the billions and trillions of yesteryear.

For at least the first half of the 20th Century, Australia followed what was then called the British system, in which a billion was a million millions and a trillion was a million billions.

America and France used a different numerical system in which a billion was a thousand millions and a trillion was a thousand [American] billions.

The dictionary entry – from a 1940 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage – shows the old usages. However, I'm not sure an ordinary reader checking Fowler's definitions would be any the wiser.

When did Australia switch to the US usage? There doesn't seem to be much much specific evidence. My recollection – which may be imperfect – is there was no official ruling. Newspapers began to change in the mid to late 1960s, and by the start of the 1970s nearly all would have gone over to the US system.

The change was cemented in 1974 when Britain itself switched to the US numerical system for all practical purposes.

Wikipedia has a good description of how the different numerical systems evolved.


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