Better known as a billion these days, it came to us from the French; milli– (in million) + –ard (to form the noun). But its story is a flip-floppy one…
In 1516 while writing in Latin as one did back in the day, French mathematician Guillaume Budé first recorded the term milliart to mean “ten myriad myriad” or one thousand million. Thirty odd years later while attributing the term to Budé’s earlier usage, another French mathematician, Jacques Pelletier du Mans used milliard to mean one million million. But in a numbers game milliard lost to the competition and its definition was once again reduced to one thousand million.
The competition in milliard’s story is, of course, billion.
So let’s go there.
The French billon of the 1680’s (originally byllion; bi + million) meant the second power of a million (a million millions) and it was adopted by the British and the Germans.
However, as use of large numbers increased in France they evolved into punctuated three digit groups as opposed to six – and billion was used to refer to the resulting “thousand million”. Remember the short scale – from the tale of nonillion?
Larger number names began to apply to their smaller number counterparts with some French and Italian mathematicians using billion and others using thousand million or milliard – with the reduced definition – all referring to the same number; 1 000 000 000.
This short billion was picked up by the USA and in their school curriculums by 1729.
Now although little billion had been born and widely accepted in France, once Billi was out in the world, the French Government turned their back. They officially adopted the bigger billion and all the long scale relatives in 1961.
In the same year, the UK attempted to introduce their own term for a thousand million in the form of gillion (gi- from giga). It didn’t catch on and in 1974, the British Government chose to follow the USA, officially switching to the short scale to help avoid confusion.
But it’s still confusing, so here’s a map to keep your billions straight if you travel.
In 1975, French mathematician, Geneviève Guitel gave us the scale names we still use today: long scale (échelle longue) and short scale (échelle courte). It was the least they could do, really!
And what of everybody’s undisputed million; the building block for numerical terms of astronomical as well as indefinite and fictional proportions?
It was counted into English from French in the late 13c. as “one thousand thousands”. Thankfully this hasn’t changed for us but in its country of origin, Italy, the term was far less specific. Italian millione from the early 13c. was created by adding -one (large or great) to the Latin mille (thousand), and simply means “a great thousand”.