You say a Billion Tomaytoes, I say a Billion Tomahtoes

My understanding of the word billion is that it is the number that is represented as a one followed by nine zeros in American, but the number that is represented as a one followed by twelve naughts in English; a thousand million in the USA, but a million million on this side of the pond.

So when Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne talk about a billion pounds are they:

A) Genuinely talking about a billion pounds sterling?
B) Using the American usage out of ignorance of English usage?
C) Using the American usage in order to exaggerate the reality of the UK's financial problems?
D) Bastardising the English language for some other reason?


  1. For what it's worth, Alwyn, wikipedia offers the following, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_and_short_scales

    For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the United Kingdom uniformly used the long scale,[3] while the United States of America used the short scale,[3] so that usage of the two systems was often referred to as British and American respectively. In 1974, the government of the UK switched to the short scale, a change that is reflected in its mass media and official usage.[4][5][6][7] Although some residual usage of the long scale continues in the UK,[8] the phrases British usage and American usage are no longer accurate nor helpful characterisations.

    [In Britain] "Billion" has meant 10^9 in most sectors of official published writing for many years now. The UK government, the BBC, and most other broadcast or published mass media, have used the short scale in all contexts since the mid-1970s

    Usage of the two systems can be a subject of controversy. Differences in opinion as to which system should be used can evoke resentment between adherents, while national differences of any kind can acquire jingoistic overtones.

    So, I suppose that would be your D).

  2. This question was actually asked by a BBC correspondent to the government a few months ago. it might have been Robert Peston, but the government initially didn't know. They had to check and then got back to the BBC about it.

  3. Perhaps the only solution is to say a hundred million or a thousand million and drop bilion alltogether or invent a new word.

  4. The American usage become the common usage about 30 years' ago when talking about Government accounts - I believe the decision was made by Dennis Healy in the mid 70's ...