In most other countries, a word similar to "billion" indicates 1,000,000,000,000, or 1012, or one million millions. For example: French, Norwegian and German billion, Spanish billón, Italian bilione and Swedish billion or biljon. The value 109 is called something similar to the English word "milliard" in these countries. For example, French and Norwegian milliard, German Milliarde, Spanish millardo, Italian miliardo and Swedish miljard or milliard. (Spanish commonly uses "thousand million": mil millones.) See also False friends.
Origin late 17th century: From French, prefix bi- (twice) and -illion (from million). In imitation of one million million. Trillion: one million million million and so on.
Some non-English speaking countries are exceptions to the above rule and match the U.S. usage. A Brazillian Portuguese dictionary indicates 1012 = trilhão, 109 = bilhão. Similarly, transliterating from Greek, 1012 = trisekatommyrio, 109 = disekatommyrio (see myriad).
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- Au lieu de dire mille milliers, on dira million, au lieu de dire mille millions, on dira byllion, etc..., et tryllion, quadrilion...octylion, nonyllion, et ainsi des autres si plus oultre on voulait procéder.
- Instead of saying thousand thousands, one will say million, instead of saying thousand million, one will say billion, etc..., and trillion, quadrillion, ..., octillion, nonillion, and similar as far as you want to proceed.
Then it became really complicated:
- 1948 the "Conférence des Poids et des Mesures" proposes to use the Pelletier system in France.
- 1961 the "Journal Officiel" (the French official gazette) decided in favor of this proposal.
- Some dictionaries recommend: "The terms billion, trillion, quintillion, quatrillion, quintillion and sextillion are to be avoided because of the ambiguity"
- In 1974 British prime minister Harold Wilson abandoned the use of billion for 1012, by explaining before the House of Commons the fact that "billion" from now on in British government statistics has the American use i.e. means 109.
On one side, Graham Dane, a native English speaker, writes in the forum of the Online-vocabolary LEO.org:
- The term milliard is very rare in British English. Billion has meant thousand million in financial writings for many years now, and is almost universal in other fields. Anyone using billion to mean million million is likely to be misunderstood.
- Despite this, the U.S. meaning is still rare outside journalism and finance, its introduction having served merely to create confusion. Throughout the U.K., a common response to the question "What do you understand by 'a billion'?" would be: "Well, I mean a million million, but I often don't know what other people mean." Few schoolchildren are confident of the meaning, though, again, 1012 seems to be preferred.