Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Million Million!

This afternoon I was watching this YouTube clip as I do from time to time when I need a shot of nostalgia and couldn't believe my ears when, at 3.40, I heard these words "at a cost of ten thousand million pounds". To most people this probably means very little but to a math nerd like me it sounds so odd because that particular piece of mathematical vocabulary usage has never existed in the US. Only in the UK up until 1975 was a billion another name for a million million. Everywhere else in the world, as far as I know, a billion has always been a thousand million like the number above. Perhaps the British Commonwealth also used the same mathematical definition for a billion as used in the UK. I don't remember the change occurring when I was living and teaching in the UK in 1975 but I guess it must have done.

Another interesting thing connected to this issue is the fact that the Oxford Dictionaries defines the change as a linguistic change as opposed to a mathematical change referring to "British English" and "American English".

I always wonder how much confusion it must have caused when the same number names referred to such vastly different quantities. Apparently there were similar disparities in the words trillion, and probably all the other words for large numbers. George Bernard Shaw was only half right when he said the UK and the US were two countries separated by a common language; they were also separated by a common, or maybe not so common,  numerical system. It's also 'Maths' in the UK and 'Math' in the US. Which one is the correct abbreviation for Mathematics, I wonder?

The Brit's billion was a thousand times bigger than an American's billion which just goes to disprove the old saw that everything is bigger in the US of A!.   

No comments:

Post a Comment