millions and billions

Rabbit reading by Lance Tooks
drawing courtesy Lance Tooks

I was intrigued by the BBC website Magazine story entitled Do the dead outnumber the living?

My attention was caught in particular by the table at the end showing a total for the number of people who have ever lived as 107,602,707,791.

In order to reach that figure, estimates are shown of the population at different points through the entire history of the world, starting at 50,000 BC, as well as the estimated number of births since the previous date on the table. But it’s actually the first line of the table that intrigues me. It simply says that in 50,000 BC the population of the planet was: 2.

Given how we all complain about not being able to find our ideal partner, and how we say of certain people we wouldn’t be with them even if they were the only other person alive on the planet, it seems incredible that the first two people on earth discovered such perfect harmony and compatibility that they were responsible for a family extending to 107 milliard** descendents. Anyone would think we were descended from rabbits.

(Many thanks to Lance Tooks for the original drawing.)

** When I was a child, a ‘billion’ was defined as a million million. Now, though, I’m never quite sure what it means when it’s written in English, as it’s impossible to know whether the British or American value is being used. To avoid confusion, I’d rather use milliard which is clearly defined in my Chambers Concise 20th Century Dictionary as a thousand million.

I note with sadness that the online Chambers 21st Century Dictionary describes this as an ‘old use’ and says that my understandong of billion is a ‘former use’. I am glad to see that the RAE remain clear in their definition of billón as un millón de millones […] la unidad seguida por doce ceros.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

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

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