Sunday, November 18, 2007

Yo NYT: a billion is a THOUSAND millions

If you read the lead editorial in the paper version today's New York Times, you would have come across this shocking line:
House Democrats distinguished themselves this week when they stood up to the White House’s latest military funding steamroller: approving only $50 million of the additional $196 million the president requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their editorials need an editor. If Bush only asked for $196 million for wars, Congress would give it to him no problem. And no one who knows anything about military budgets would describe such a paltry sum as a "funding steamroller". Of course, the editorial writers meant to say "billion", not "million". That they could make such a mistake is truly frightening. A billion is nothing like a million. In fact, a billion is what you get when you take a thousand millions and add them together. It's like mistaking gallon jug for a shot glass. (Here's a good post from Dean Baker on innumeracy and how the press should report numbers.) How many people did this error slip past? It's a howler. A doozy. A big black eye for the Gray Lady. (HT: Atrios, though I did see this myself this morning and shook my head in utter dismay. It's the New York Times, for chrissake. Don't they have like, copy editors and budgets and shit?)

I'm pleased to see they have corrected the error on their website.

In other news, I'm very sad to discover that Internal Monologue has only had 45 visitors since its inception. That's like 2 visitors a month. I guess no one reads this blog...oh wait, I've had 45 thousand visitors. Funny how I couldn't tell the difference.


Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

No wait, isn't that a milliard?

And I just read .

1:00 PM, November 18, 2007  
Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

That link didn't quite work the way it was supposed to.

1:01 PM, November 18, 2007  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

If the New York Times was a British paper, then yes, 1,000,0000,000 would be a milliard. If they had said milliard, they would have been correct, but then I would have mocked them for adopting a ridiculous British affectation.

3:56 PM, November 18, 2007  
Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

Actually, my research seems to indicate that while 1 million million was the original meaning of "billion," it now pretty universally means 1 thousand million throughout the English speaking world, "milliard" or "thousand million" being increasingly rare even in the UK.

So I guess you'd have to call it "French," which is even weirder, because French went the opposite way: originally a French billion was 1 thousand million, and since they helped us in the Recolution we adopted that convention. Then in the early 20th century they picked up the British convention. Now if you suggested to the French that they should switch back to the billion = 10^9 system, you would doubtless be accused of anglophonic imperialism, even though they originated the meme!

I really need to write about this on the Latin Wikipedia, because it looks like the -illion words have a interesting history in second-millenium Latin.

10:23 PM, November 18, 2007  

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