a number of questions

Or, perhaps, a question of numbers.

A headline in today’s El Mundo says that 4,158 million euros has been lost in the last ten years due to political corruption. Except, it being Spanish, it doesn’t say it quite like that:

Headline: la corrupción política ha sustraído al menos 4.158 millones en 10 años

The Spanish use “million” in the plural after a number, giving phrases like seis millones rather than “six million”. They also use a full stop as the thousands separator and a comma where we use a decimal point.

This makes reading numbers quite complicated. It’s easy to misread 4.158 millones as just over four million, which isn’t really that big a figure if we’re looking at ten years.

Of course, if this had been in an American newspaper (by which I mean “American, from the USA”) it would probably have been phrased as “over four billion”, which does sound a shockingly large amount.

My “Chambers Concise Twentieth Century Dictionary” (the print version) gives the first definition of “billion” as “a million million”, which is the way I learned it as a child. But Chambers online have ceded to influences from across the Atlantic and that meaning is now relegated to second place:

billion noun (billions or after a number billion)
1 a thousand million (ie unit and nine zeros).
2 formerly in the UK and France, etc: a million million (ie unit and twelve zeros).

In Spain, the RAE reassures me that the official meaning is the one I favour:

billón.
(Del fr. billion, de bi, por bis, y la t. de millón).
1. m. Mat. Un millón de millones, que se expresa por la unidad seguida de doce ceros.

Mind you, in my experience, Spaniards are more familiar with the word millardo than English speakers are with the equivalent “milliard”. (Last night, watching an American TV show with Spanish subtitles, I noticed how the “billions of casualties” were psychologically reduced in importance when correctly translated as millardos.)

Interestingly, the Merriam Webster number table lists “milliard” as the British equivalent to the American “billion”. And their online dictionary gives the second definition for billion as simply:

2 : a very large number

When I read the news online – whether it’s dealing with cuts, costs or corruption – I wonder whether I am reading Spanish or American billions. Either way, they are figures which are really too big to comprehend. Which makes it all the more interesting to see articles like this from Michael Blastland, which suggests that there are times when it makes more sense to talk in terms of proportions rather than absolute figures.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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