By a curious historical confusion, two different systems for naming large numbers exist, one in the US and the other in Britain and other parts of the English-speaking world. This could be troublesome, but these days such large numbers are much more often given in unambiguous scientific notation, and the US usage is in any case coming to dominate, as it has almost completely with ** billion**.

The original scheme, invented in France in the sixteenth century, started with ** million** and multiplied 1 by that number the required number of times. The name of the unit was then based on the number of multiplications, using Latin numerals. So a

In the eighteenth century French mathematicians changed to multiples of a thousand instead, but took over the existing number names; the Latin numbers then marked one less than the number of multiplications, so that ** trillion** was 1 multiplied by a thousand four times. The US system was based on the thousands scheme, but the British stayed with the older millions one.

The following table gives some names and values in the two systems:

**Numberword**

**Millionsscheme**

**Thousandsscheme**

*million*

10^{6}

10^{6}

** billion** (Latin

10^{12}

10^{9}

** trillion** (Latin

10^{18}

10^{12}

** quadrillion** (Latin

10^{24}

10^{15}

** quintillion** (Latin

10^{30}

10^{18}

** sextillion** (Latin

10^{36}

10^{21}

** septillion** (Latin

10^{42}

10^{24}

** octillion** (Latin

10^{48}

10^{27}

** nonillion** (Latin

10^{54}

10^{30}

** decillion** (Latin

10^{60}

10^{33}

Two parallel sets of prefixes for number multiples exist, one derived from Latin, the other from Greek. These appear widely in compounds but are no longer much used to create new words, the job having been largely passed to the SI method described below, especially in scientific usage.

**Number**

**Latin**

**Greek**

The standard system of prefixes for multiples these days is that laid down in SI units (Système International D’Unités), an international agreement dating from 1960, which defines standard units for quantities and the names for the decimal prefixes to use with them. These are widely used.

The standard SI prefixes for multiples are:

*yotta-*

10^{24}

Based on Latin octo‑, eight

The standard SI prefixes for fractional quantities are:

The prefixes *hecto-*, *deca-*, *deci-*, and *centi-* are generally avoided in scientific work.

The use of decimal prefixes to describe the similar — but not identical — binary multiples used in computing (such as ** megabyte** or

In 1998 the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) agreed an international standard for a new group of prefixes that removes the ambiguity; names use the first two letters of the SI decimal prefix, followed by the letters *bi*, for binary. These are only slowly coming into use.

*kibi-*

2^{10}

*mebi-*

2^{20}

*gibi-*

2^{30}

*tebi-*

2^{40}

*pebi-*

2^{50}

*exbi-*

2^{60}

Copyright © Michael Quinion 2008–. All rights reserved. Last updated 19 July 2020. Your comments are very welcome.