Gary Littman

OWNER OF THE LANGUAGE HOUSE

Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Everyone was a trillionaire. Many were starving.

A generation ago we rarely heard the number millions. Then we progressed to billions (milliards en français) and now we speak of trillions (billions): 1,000,000,000,000 or 1012.  These amounts are simply too large for our grey matter (brains) to compute. They are also extremely confusing to translate from English to French (see table below), and even confounding for British-English  and American-English speakers.   

The concept of billions and trillions was first documented by French mathematician Jehan Adam in the 15th century. It became known as the long scale and was adopted by most countries including the United Kingdom.

The Americans introduced the short scale and in 1974 the British Government dropped the long for the short USA scale of large numbers.

For example, a trillion was historically (and still is in French) an obscure measure for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 1018.  According to the short scale used in the English-speaking world today, a trillion is 1,000,000,000,000 or 1012 and is now in common usage.

Confused? Yes me too… but not members of the Piraha tribe who live in the jungles of South America. They have zero tolerance for numbers. Tribal members do not count past two. They cannot tell the difference between 6 and 12. Anything more than two is a “big” number.

Before you start congratulating yourself on your own advanced numeric neurones, here’s a little question: What was happening a trillion seconds ago…?

A. Great grandmother was born.

B. Roman times.

C. Iron Age.

D. Extinction of the woolly rhinoceros.   

Mmm… what do you think? (You can find the answer below.... No, no stay here, stop scrolling down. I will tell you).

A billion seconds ago it was 1983 (31 years ago). A trillion seconds ago was about 31,000 years ago bringing us back to the last Ice Age when modern humans were developing stone tools, jewellery and art (cave painting). It is believed there were three distinct members of the human family tree alive at the time - modern humans, Denisovans and Neanderthals. For your information, the last woolly rhinoceros (which may have looked something like this below) died off about 10,000 years ago – a mere 315 billion seconds ago.

 

We now associate trillions with money, especially debt. The USA debt is now almost 18 trillion dollars according to the debt clock. Just imagine all those $100 notes stacked on top or each other… No, I can’t either. In anyone’s language it would be ‘big’. Try this for size.

But the US debt figures pale (pâlir) when compared to the hyper-numbers produced in times of hyperinflation. In 2008 everyone in Zimbabwe was a trillionaire, but many could not afford a loaf of bread (une miche de pain). The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe released this blue banknote below with a denomination of 100 trillion dollars, which was valued at USD$30 for a very short time before the currency finally collapsed.

 

The most extreme example of hyperinflation occurred in Europe. In 1946 the Hungarian National Bank issued the 100 quintillion pengő note at the height of the worst ever recorded hyperinflation.  Also blue, it looked like this:

A quintillion (trillion in French) is really big. A quintillion makes an English trillion look very ordinary. A quintillion seconds is about 32 billion years, about twice the age of the universe. On the number scale after a trillion comes the quadrillion (billiard) or 1015 and then comes the quintillion - 1018 or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 - also known as a billion billion. The xerox of zeros would have forced the young woman off the bank note.

Unfortunately the note was almost worthless by the time night fell on the day of its issue. Inflation was running at 41,900,000,000,000,000% (4.19 × 1016% or 41.9 quadrillion percent) in July, 1946. Prices doubled every 13.5 hours.

In times of hyper inflation wheelbarrows (les brouettes) replaced wallets. Inflation raced so fast that within hours the wheelbarrow became more valuable than its cash contents (see below). Thick wads of money made excellent building blocks and kept the kids amused for hours. Run out of newspaper?  You could always start the stove with a fistful of useless money.

A trillion things to do with money, except spend it.

 


More reading:

The Hungarian pengő

Hyperinflation

Numbers: English to French

106 million = million, 109 billion = milliard, 1012 trillion= billion, 1015 quadrillion = billiard, 1018 quintillion = trillion, 10100 googol = gogol.

 

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