Monday, October 13, 2008

A Trillion Here, a Trillion There

Le Monde's proofreaders note that all this talk of trillions and billions has tripped up some journalists and their translators, since the English "trillion" is not the same as the French "trillion." Here is their summary:

  • MIllion anglais = MIllion français
  • BIllion anglais = MIlliard français
  • TRIllion anglais = BIllion français, mille milliards de picaillons !
I am reminded of the late Everett Dirksen, mellifluous if reactionary senator from Illinois, who used to say, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money."

That was then; this is now.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

at this point those of the older generation who still count in old Francs must be at a loss for words - thats a lot of millions de millions centimes!


Chris P.

Unknown said...

I think the financiers should take a leaf out of the scientist's notebook: kilobucks, megabucks, gigabucks, terabucks, petabucks ... that should hold us for a while. Unambiguous and internationally accepted.

Leo said...

Right, as he would have said:

"The petabuck stops here".

Anonymous said...

Art: blast from the past, great to see you're blogging!

Hoping to continue the great Art Goldhammer onion soup on election night tradition here in California. Do you have a recipe, and do you share it?

Alison formerly of Cambridge, Mass, now of Davis California

Unknown said...

Hi, Alison! How did you happen to find me here? Amazing that you remember my onion soup election night tradition, which dates from 1968. Yes, I have a recipe: it's Julia Child's, and I've been using it for 40 years, so I don't intend to change now.

Anonymous said...

Google. It's amazing, isn't it.

Julia Child's? Well, that's straightforward enough!

We'll raise a glass or two in your honor on election night, and hope we're celebrating this time...

Anonymous said...

Le Monde neglected to crank in a further complication introduced by the language that separates Americans from Brits:

Fr. milliard = thousand million (British English) or billion (American English)
Fr. billion = billion (British English) or trillion (American English)
Fr. trillion = quintillion (British English) or trillion (American English)

On the other hand, modern British usage (especially in finance) is increasingly following American. Here's what the Wikipedia article on "Names of Large Numbers" has to say about this:

"Traditional British usage assigned new names for each power of one million (the long scale): 1,000,000 = 1 million; 1,000,0002 = 1 billion; 1,000,0003 = 1 trillion; and so on. It was adapted from French usage, and is similar to the system that was documented or invented by Chuquet.

Traditional American usage (which, oddly enough, was also adapted from French usage but at a later date), and modern British usage, assigns new names for each power of one thousand (the short scale.) Thus, a billion is 1000 × 10002 = 109; a trillion is 1000 × 10003 = 1012; and so forth. Due to its dominance in the financial world (and by the US-dollar) this was adopted for official United Nations documents.

Traditional French usage has varied; in 1948, France, which had been using the short scale, reverted to the long scale.

The term milliard is unambiguous and always means 109. It is almost never seen in American usage, rarely in British usage, and frequently in European usage.

With regard to names ending in -illiard for numbers 106•n+3, milliard is certainly in widespread use in languages other than English, but the degree of actual use of the larger terms is questionable. For example, as of 2004, Google searches on French-language pages for trillion, quadrillion, and quintillion return 6630, 312, and 127 hits respectively, whilst searches for trilliard and quadrilliard return only 102 and 7 hits respectively. However, one has to take into account that these large numbers are not often needed and that scientists almost always use scientific notation. In German the terms "Milliarde", "Billiarde" etc. are out of question."

No wonder the international financial system is in crisis!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I see that the exponentials didn't come across in my post. Thus "10002" should read 1,000 squared, "109" should read 10 to the ninth power, etc.