I read an article on Gizmodo today in which Jesus Diaz quoted the cash balance of Apple as being $100,000 million. After this came a large torrent of arguments complaining about why he didn’t just say $100 billion! Meanwhile some people complained that in their country this figure would not be correct as in most countries, a billion is a significantly larger number than in America.

Jesus Diaz eventually replied to the comments clarifying that he had in fact chosen to say $100,000 million for exactly this reason, so that people would know the exact figure he was stating regardless of where they had had their education or what their scientific knowledge was.

How is a British Billion actually different?

The truth is, there is no difference, there was but there is not anymore.

In Britain a billion was accepted to be a million million and a trillion was accepted to be a million million million.  This definition spread across most of the world because, to be blunt, Britain owned most of the world.

However, in American a billion was accepted to be a thousand million and a trillion, to be a million million!  Oh dear, now things are really confusing, that meant that when ever an American said one trillion, to us in the UK, they should have said a billion!

To avoid disambiguation in the scientific community, many scientists avoided using the terms billion and trillion altogether, just like Jesus Diaz attempted to do in his article and as the Americans grew in power, it was eventually accepted that the American billion and trillion be adopted internationally in the scientific community, though as with any language, its common meaning will not change until everyone accepts it as meaning one thing which appears to be a long way off.

It is worth noting that the financial industry has also chosen to work with the American billion as noted by Denis Healey in 1975 when he announced that the treasury was officially switching to using the American billion.

Did the American billion have a name in Britain?

Yes, 1000 million in Britain was called a milliard, though this term was never widely used.

But doesn’t a million million just make sense?

You may be thinking, BI means two, so million million makes sense and TRI means three so million million million also makes sense?  Well yes but then, under the exact same reasoning, the American system also makes sense, allow me to demonstrate.

A million is a thousand multiplied by a thousand once.  While BI means two which means that a billion is a thousand multiplied by a thousand twice.  TRI means three so a trillion is a thousand multiplied by a thousand thrice.

So which one should I use?

The truth is, if you’re outside of America, you can pick and choose which billion and trillion you use, however, if you are using it in a scientific or financial capacity or in any forum with an international viewership, you should avoid using the old British system as it can lead to confusion, it will even lead to confusion in your own country as many have switched to the American system.

Or, you can simply do what many scientists and of course the aforementioned Jesus Diaz has done and just avoid the words all together.  If I say 1 million million and one person reads it as a trillion while someone else reads it as billion, there is no harm done because I know that in their heads, they both understand the number I am trying to convey.  I would rather have it that way than have myself say trillion and have people understand it as to entirely different numbers.