Is trillion the new billion?

A trillion

The eurozone's bailout fund now stands at one trillion euros (£880bn or $1.4tn) after a deal was thrashed out in Brussels by European leaders. The figure of one trillion has become increasingly widely used but do we really understand it?

Once a representation of something beyond our comprehension, the word trillion - 1,000,000,000,000 - has now sealed its place in common parlance.

As US politicians were trying to find budget savings of $1.2tn, European leaders were topping up their rescue fund to the tune of 1tn euros.

A combination of economic progress and inflation means larger and larger numbers are needed to define financial sums, and a billion is no longer the benchmark. So how did trillion take over?

The words billion and trillion, or variations on them, were first documented by French mathematicians in the 15th Century.

A trillion was 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or the third power of a million. The US later adopted what became known as the short scale, which reduced a trillion to 1,000,000,000,000 (and a billion to 1,000,000,000), but the British retained the old system until the 1970s.

How billions and trillions changed

In 1690, the philosopher John Locke suggested the French word billion as a useful term for avoiding "the often repeating of millions of millions of millions etc". The French had purposely coined "billion" a 100 or so years earlier to denote the second power of a million ("bi" being the standard prefix for two).

However the application of the word was subsequently changed by French arithmeticians, so that the terms "billion" and "trillion" denoted not the second and third powers of a million, but a thousand millions and a thousand thousand millions. This system was adopted by the US. Britain, however, retained the original (and etymologically correct) use.

In 1974, Harold Wilson pledged that the British government would adopt the "short scale" naming system used in the US to avoid ambiguity. As a result, the value of billion is now generally understood to mean a thousand millions. Nonetheless this is still a bone of contention for many, and the older sense "a million millions" is still common.

At that point, the word trillion was rarely mentioned in the news and resided more in the imagination of children, alongside zillions and gazillions, as an expression of something on an enormous scale.

It was more commonly used in the US. The New York Times, for instance, anticipated the US economy in 1970 would soon surpass $1tn. But it only cropped up in the British media with regularity in the 1980s, in reference to the yen or the lira.

But the last few years has seen its increasing use and it has now supplanted a billion, says James Abdey, a fellow of statistics at London School of Economics.

"When it was first used in the 1970s it had shock value. The first time someone hears the word trillion, they might not know the number of zeros but they know it's a big number. But the figures are now bandied around in the media and it's devalued its importance."

The US is more used to the term, due to the size of its economy and its spending power.

"'Trillion' does seem to have much more currency than it used to, probably because of the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the budget and deficit," says John Allen Paulos a professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"This doesn't mean that most people have a visceral grasp of its size. It'd be interesting to have the presidential candidates asked during a debate, How many millions in a trillion? I suspect at least some of them would try to deflect the question with a joke. And emotion trumps the numbers as usual. A few million dollars spent on some hot-button issue often arouses more ire than a trillion-dollar war."

The big numbers divide

  • Short scale: US, UK, Australia, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Ireland, English Canada and others
  • Long scale: France, Italy (both switched to short then back to long), Spain, Germany, French Canada and others

It's not only in the more affluent countries that the word has risen to prominence. Living in Zimbabwe during the height of its inflation problems in 2008, people became used to talking about their daily expenses in terms of trillions.

Elsewhere, economic growth has driven an inexorable rise in numbers, says economist Andrew Dilnot. "The speed of change you get from quite small annual growth is what catches us all out. If something is growing at 10% a year then it doubles every seven-and-a-quarter years."

But increased use has not enhanced understanding, he says. "My guess is that most people really struggle to have a clear idea of what a trillion is. I have to sit down and think pretty hard how many noughts there are.

"The answer I think is what we mean is 1,000 billion, which has 12 noughts. Some people still think a billion is a million-million, which is really a trillion, and they think a trillion is something else. So the honest answer is people just see a trillion and think it's a very, very big number."

How big is one trillion?

If the area of a doormat is equal to one, the total area of the United Kingdom is a trillion times bigger - 1,000,000,000,000

  • Doormat area: 0.24 sq m
  • United Kingdom total land area: 244,820 sq km

About 20 years ago, a study suggested Italians were much more comfortable with big numbers than the British because of the lira, says Mr Dilnot, and despite the increased use of trillion in British discourse (most commonly about debt), the UK's national income is described as £1,500bn not £1.5tn, because the UK understands billions better.

The new trillions

  • Trillion - 1 + 12 zeros
  • Quadrillion - 1 + 15 zeros
  • Quintillion - 1 + 18 zeros
  • Sextillion - 1 + 21 zeros
  • Septillion - 1 + 24 zeros
  • Octillion - 1 + 27 zeros
  • Nonillion - 1 + 30 zeros
  • Decillion - 1 + 33 zeros

Numbers in short scale

One way to enhance understanding is to divide a big number by the number of people affected, he says, so if the population of the eurozone is about 330m, then a trillion shared represents about 3,000 euros for each person. Another way is to count the numbers one at a time, one per second. A million seconds is 11 days, a billion seconds is about 32 years and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years.

As well as the mathematical reality that numbers really are getting bigger, there is also a wilful repetition of words like trillion, says lexicographer Susie Dent.

"The use of 'trillions' in our general conversation is part of a trend towards linguistic inflation or 'bigging up'.

"Some words are used to the point of exhaustion and need replacing with others in order to maintain the strength of expression. So 'heroes' are now 'superheroes', we're not just angry any more, we are 'incandescent with rage', and 'tragedy' is losing its power because it's used for less than tragic events.

And words which previously had sufficient power in themselves are attracting prefixes such as uber- or mega- in order to re-energise them, she adds.

"'Trillion' has become a bit of a throw-away for a large amount."

Next up, quadrillion.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I was confused until I read this article. I remember watching "Ask Aspel" as a child and him saying that a billion was "a million million". I could never get my head around 1,000,000,000 being called a billion - surely this was wrong? But now I see that the Americans have usurped the meaning, as they've done with so many things. If I was a billionaire I'd feel short-changed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.


    "Since we have adopted the American system then what is now called a Trillion is what the UK used to call a Billion.
    Of course our sensationalist media like it as it makes everything sound bigger than it really is.
    Another case of following the stupid Yanks, why can we not ignore them and integrate more closely with Europe?"

    Shouldn't you have had this argument..... 37 years ago?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    If Only Fools & Horses is re-made in 2050 Delboys coin phrase will be -

    This time next year we'll be Zillionaires

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    S"eriously, perhaps changing to a currency that is both new and "foreign" - (i.e the Euro), means many people didn't have a sense of what things were worth and how prices creep up and value goes down."
    Err, seriously though, we've all had a decade of inflation since then. Of course prices look high compared to 1999, no matter what currency you use!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    sshhhh ~ please be quiet ~ there's another debate going on about directors pay ~ at the moment they're talking in millions. If they get to hear about this ~ they'll end paying themselves billions. can everyone make sure they only whisper on this debate please?? Thankyou!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    That's inflation for you!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The answer to the question is yes.
    Since we have adopted the American system then what is now called a Trillion is what the UK used to call a Billion.
    Of course our sensationalist media like it as it makes everything sound bigger than it really is.
    Another case of following the stupid Yanks, why can we not ignore them and integrate more closely with Europe which is after all, where the UK is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I have a book of "Tables and Measurements" that my dad had in the 1930's . It gives the ENGLISH Billion as 100,000,000,000 .
    DOes this mean it has been devalued and the Americans could not count that high.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    And as for formats, maybe it's an age thing but I've never seen the logic of the long format - to me, each extra set of 3 zeroes should have a different name. One (far-fetched) benefit is that pairs of phrases like "million billion" and "billion million" mean the same thing, preventing confusion. As with everything, the long-format generation will pass on and we'll all be on the same wavelength.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Whatever you call it, a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    10. walkabout80

    To be topical with the US debt at 15 Trillion and the world population just hitting 7 billion that is just for American debt a figure of $2142.85 for every living sole! Scary


    Well, with sole fish stocks at only 10% of their pre-industrial levels, that's not so bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    And now the race is on for the next big milestone: debt in the quadrillions or world population of 8 billion?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I remember my son when he was about 5 years old, asking me 'Dad what's the biggest number ever?'
    I said to him ' I'm not sure,what's the biggest number you can think of?'
    Anyway thing i wanted to add was that here in Japan a Billion is not the same a billion in Britain or America. It actually explains it in Japanese dictionaries.
    Have any traders tried to pull a quick one? billion here or there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    These are teeny weeny numbers in comparison to a Googol or Googolplex

    Writing a googolplex in numerals (i.e., "10,000,000,000...") would be physically impossible, as doing so would require more space than the known universe provides, even if you wrote it on thin blue Rizla papers layer upon layer throughout the universe.

    But, some say it's still only average person US calories eaten in a day

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    So first you say..

    "a billion is no longer the benchmark", and
    "[a trillion] has now supplanted a billion"

    Then later..

    "there is still reluctance in the UK to use trillions - for example, national income is described as £1500bn not £1.5tn because the UK understands billions better"

    So in what sense are the first 2 statements correct? And surely the answer to the headline is a resounding no!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The shift to the short scale always struck me as somewhat pointless. If an individual really struggled with the long scale (which I've always seen as making more sense) concept then I highly doubt they'd be the kind of person to be paying any meaningful attention to matters involving numbers of this size. Seems like another case of the US adopting something just to be different and media following

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @#3"It's not billion it's a thousand million"

    It is, otherwise all a million is is a thousand thousand..and therefore a billion is then a thousand thousand would you describe a trillion? - as a thousand thousand thousand thousand?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The Americans used short scale surely in an attempt to hide the real numbers? I mean, what sounds scarier to you, £999 billion or £1 trillion?

    The world and the economy will have come to an horrendous end well before quadrillion needs to be used!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Jon Laughton
    Hence eg "£1 billion" would become 1 G£ and "£1 trillion" would become 1 T£. Much clearer and more efficient IMHO :-)


  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    What happened to the milliarde?


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