Number Confusion

As if big numbers weren’t confusing enough in and by themselves there is some language confusion to compound the complexity of all. Up to 1 million everything is fine but after that the problems start.

Let me explain:  there are two scales, the short and the long, when it comes to naming big numbers.  The short scale introduces a new name for every number that is 1,000 times larger than the previous one, so if we start with 1 million (a 1 with 6 zeros) and multiply by 1,000 we get 1 billion (1 with 9 zeros) and if we multiply again by 1,000 we get a trillion (1 with 12 zeros). then comes the quadrillion (15 zeros), the quintillion (18 zeros) and the sextillion (21 zeros).  I am sure there is more but unless you are a astronomer you wont have to concern yourself with those.

The long scale introduces a new name for every number that is 1 million times larger than the previous one. Again starting with 1 million and multiplying by 1 million we get a billion – same name as above for 1 with 9 zeros but this one has 12 zeros.  The 1 with 9 zeros is called milliard.  After the billion comes the billiard (15 zeros), then the trillion (18 zeros) and the trilliard (21 zeros).  Then … who cares?

A scary big number: the national deficit in the US. Pic: http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/

Now, most English-language countries use the short scale.  Therefore the usual suspects: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as a few others like Brazil, Indonesia, and Israel use the short scale.  Long scale is used a lot in Europe, and Latin America. For a complete listing see here.

So, if you read that the national deficit of the US is $14 trillions it is bad, real bad, but not as bad as you might believe if you think in long scale terms.

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