Number of zeros in 1 billion - why different in UK than N.America?

On Jeopardy last night there was a question about how many zeros are in 1 billion in Great Britain.

I thought a billion = 1 thousand million.

One million has 6 zeros. 1,000,000.
One thousand has 3 zeros. 1,000.
One million x one thousand = 1 billion, with 9 zeros. 1,000,000,000.

But the correct answer on the show was 12.


On they list as being chiefly British the definition in which a billion is one million millions.

Also: Million, Billion, Trillion…

This is correct: in the UK, a billion = 1 million million, hence 12 zeros.

Why? I dunno – just one of those things, I think. Like aluminum/aluminium, the UK standardised on one, the US on another.

Interestingly, we seem to be moving towards the thousand million definition. I seem to remember that several years ago, the Treasury announced that it would be switching to that definition for budgets.

Thanks … amazing what one can learn from Jeopardy (and the Straight Dope!).

So … in Britain, what do they call our billion? Is there a name for it, or would they call 3 billion “3 thousand million”.

(I’m aware that in everyday conversation, the topic of billions rarely comes up, but I’m just curious.)


Most often I’ve seen ‘1 000 000 000’ in British publications as ‘thousand million’, but I think it could also be ‘miliard’ (which is I believe from French).

It should probably be noted that the American usage is now widely used in the UK (or so I’ve read).

In UK physics the old Billion = Milion million is not used to avoid confusion with US publications. I hope Billion = Million million is obsolescent becoming obsolete in UK, as it makes pronouncing large numbers very confusing. I believe the confusion continues for higher numbers, UK trillion = milion million million = 10[sup]18[/sup] = US Quintillion.

See this site for more details.

It’s not just the UK that uses 10^12 for “billion.” So do French, Norweigian, Dutch, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish (and I presume most of the Slavic languages), just for a start.

In many of these countries, there are variations of “milliard” (which is also an English term), which are equivalent to the American billion, or 10^9.

Both those meanings are already obsolete in Britain, not that ‘trillion’ = 10[sup]18[/sup] ever got much use, I imagine. ‘Billion’, most often heard in financial contexts, always means 10[sup]9[/sup]. I can’t remember ever encountering the old usage.

I’ve never encountered the old usage, either, except in outdated text books :wink: Even in high school physics and maths, I never came across any confusion, and we had some awkward students (and teachers).

it’s the only example of something that is bigger in England than it is in America :smiley:
But yes, ‘billion’ in the sense of 10 to the power of 12 seems to have been superceded by 10 to the power of 9, probably because it makes the speaker’s number seem more impressive

For the average Joe listening to the news, none of this matters; any amount equal to or above ($/£)1000,000,000 might as well be described as ‘a shitload’ because it would take actual mental effort to visualise what the amount means, and that never happens.

I had wondered this a couple years ago, myself. I was watching, it may have been parliament, some speaker complaining that the government had spent something like “25 billion” on some social program in the past 10 years and hadnt gotten any benefit from it.

I immediately thought they meant a thousand million, but then I thought "wait, that can’t be right. First of all, dont they use billion to mean a million million (which evidently they dont anymore.) Second, 2.5 billion would seem like nothing in most budgets :))

On the other hand spending 25 million million on anything just seemed ridiculous. Thanks for clearing that up.

Isn’t there gallon larger too?

And our nobs. Don’t forget our nobs are bigger too.

I wonder how many milliardaires there are. :rolleyes:

Yes, but it makes the whole system so much more sensible!

1 million = 10[sup]6[/sup]
1 billion = 10[sup]12[/sup]
1 trillion = 10[sup]18[/sup]
1 <prefix denoting n>llion = 10[sup]6n[/sup]

On the American system it’s 10[sup]3n+3[/sup]. Ugh.

Well, just because innumeracy is rampant and unchecked in our society doesn’t mean the numerate should curb their discussions.

As of Harold Wilson’s announcement as PM on December 20th 1974 that the Treasury would be using the American definition.
One influential newspaper’s style guide evidently agrees with the consensus above. Along with such financial cases, the Guardian also uses the American definition for population figures and cosmological ages.