Wednesday, 22 June 2016

numeracy or oh, throw me a bone

At a recent BREXIT debate, one young audience member posed a clever but rather straightforward to the interlocutors, which of course left both parties baffled and stammering: to paraphrase—when politicians and pundits speak of billions (in whatever denomination) in costs or potential economic losses, are we using the long-scale or the short-scale (échelle longue et échelle courte) of a billion?
One million—universally, is ten to the sixth power, but the word billion can either be understood as one thousand millions or, in accordance with its original etymology as bi + million, the second power of a million, one followed by thirteen zeros (10¹²). Like America, England and Ireland use the short-scale most of the time—but not always and quite different from the convention on the continent that employs the long-scale, for the most part, but the distinction is not like driving on one side of the road versus another, as the distribution is more equally spread and not necessarily rooted in colonialism or empire. Most languages other than English don’t use the terms interchangeable and a billion (or some cognate) means a trillion—like the German words Millionen, Milliarden, Billionen, and it certainly is more heated and anchoring to speak of trade deficits and debt in terms of run-away trillions—rather than in more manageable and meagre billions.