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Re: 7 Billion

I believe the 10^9 "billion" was German usage (America very nearly adopted German as the state language) whereas English usage followed the French, wherein 10^9 is a "milliard". Britsh usage then, as usual, slavishly followed the Americans.
Undoubtedly Francisco is right in that Americans wanted the exaggeration of their personal wealth, but it does put a sort of hiccup in the sequence which gets even worse when extended to quadrillions, quintillions, etc. (i.e. the average take-home pay of a dustman in pounds sterling in ten years time!).

Re: 7 Billion

I believe that in Germany a billion means a million million. The story of how a billion came to have two definitions differing by a factor of 1000 is a bit complicated, and it's all down to the French. The word 'billion', meaning a million million, was invented in France in the 17th century and adopted elsewhere in Europe. Then the French modified its meaning to being only a thousand million (despite the fact that the French also had the word 'milliard' to describe a thousand million) about a century later and the USA picked up the revised definition. France then reverted back to the original definition in 1948 presumably for compatibility with other European countries. Here's the reference for all that, from the "Online Etymology Dictionary":


1680s, from Fr. billion (originally byllion in Chuquet's unpublished "Le Triparty en la Science des Nombres," 1484; copied by De la Roche, 1520), from bi- "two" + (m)illion. A million million in Britain and Germany (numeration by groups of sixes), which was the original sense; subsequently altered in French to "a thousand million" (numeration by groups of threes) and picked up in that form in U.S., "due in part to French influence after the Revolutionary War" [David E. Smith, "History of Mathematics," 1925]. France then reverted to the original meaning in 1948. British usage is truer to the etymology, but U.S. sense is said to be increasingly common there in technical writing."

The correct word in the UK for a thousand million is a milliard, as Disputin says, but I haven't heard that used since the 1970s and the word must be in danger of becoming obselete. If it does become obselete that would be, in my opinion, the fault of the British news media. If they had put a fraction of the effort they put into imposing fashionable politically correct terminology on the British public, like calling Eskimos the 'Inuit' and a chairman a 'chair', then the traditional meaning of a billion might be saved.

Re: 7 Billion

The British government officially adopted the 'short-scale' system (one billion = 1x10^9) in 1974.

Re: 7 Billion

"The British government officially adopted the 'short-scale' system (one billion = 1x10^9) in 1974."

I think the British government has been using the short billion for most of the 20th century. They've certainly been using it for financial purposes since the second world war, and possibly even before that. You can't really do financial stuff on some sort of informal basis, so it would have to be regarded as 'official'.

The idea that it was adopted in 1974 comes I think (I've seen the BBC claim this) from a PMQ question answered by Harold Wilson:


Wilson states that a billion is understood internationally to mean a thousand million, but he accepts the idea that other people in Britain outside government (which could include the news media) might continue to call it a million million.

But if you go back to 1941, Winston Churchill, prime minister at the time, was asked about the definition of a billion and stated that "for all practical financial purposes a billion represents one thousand millions, especially in the case of anything we owe".


Re: 7 Billion

Many thanks, Dave. I stand corrected. (I'm glad we can blame the French, as usual >p) )

Re: 7 Billion

Interviewed on the BBC (yes, naturally the BBC has jumped straight on this new green scam bandwagon - see Davids post a little way down, remarkably prescient - and I fully expect to see population take over from climate change as the necessary inclusion in everything from Spring Watch to Antiques Roadshow; perhaps we ought to list all the key BBC programs and log the exact dates when population first gets mentioned in each and we need to search their pension funds to see where the in vestment goes now) they admitted there can be no precision and no one can know the exact numbers nor the exact date on which that 7 billionth person is born.
So one has to assume that since this is the new green scam (still waiting to see where the money is - apart from population research grants - and appointments to UN Intergovernmental groups) they chose the date for purely PR reasons.

Re: 7 Billion

I guess next question would be how they came about to this calculation of the earth's capacity to sustain human life, when it is considered 'over population' and whether milliards or millions were estimated to begin with.
I bet the way to estimate the population is way off and with a huge number of uncertainties.