Longtime SC readers ([are any left? -- ed.]) are familiar with your host's infatuation with the Austin Powers movies, particularly the first one. And of all the quotable lines from that glorious first effort, SC's favorite is undoubtedly Dr. Evil's discovery of inflation, which runs like so:
Dr. Evil: "Here's the plan. We get the warhead, and we hold the world ransom for.....One MILLION DOLLARS!!"
No.2: "Ahem...Don't you think we should maybe ask for *more* than a million dollars? A million dollars isn't exactly a lot of money these days. Virtucon alone makes over nine billion dollars a year!"
Dr. Evil: "Really?"
Dr. Evil: "Okay then. We hold the world ransom for.....One hundred..BILLION DOLLARS!!"
[text copied from above link; edited for typos -- SC]
Now, most American English speakers probably think that this means Dr. Evil was raising his demand by a factor of 100,000. But after reading an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal Online by Carl Bialik on the various meanings of "billion" (subscription required; also sounds like it wasn't in the print edition), suddenly SC thinks that Dr. Evil may have had in mind a number about 1,000 times what most Americans interpreted it as.
Mr. Bialik interviewed a member of the International Organization for Standardization, Prof. Anders Thor from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, who laments that while Europeans consider a billion to be "one million millions", and a trillion to be "one million billions", Americans use a perverse system whereby each increment is only 1,000x the previous system. Well, perverse to Dr. Thor and the Oxford English Dictionary, at any rate:
The conflict arose from "an entire perversion" of the original meaning of the names for large numbers, according to an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a change "condemned by the greatest lexicographers," mathematicians John Horton Conway and Richard K. Guy wrote in "The Book of Numbers." About 500 years ago, French mathematicians Nicolas Chuquet and Estienne de la Roche put forward the definitions now standard in most of Europe. They used Latin prefixes for one, two, three and so on, and the scheme had a pleasing symmetry: An increase of one in the prefix meant multiplying the number by a million.
According to "The Book of Numbers," in the 17th century some French mathematicians stuck with the same Latin-derived names but shifted to definitions of the -illions that separated them by three zeros instead of six, and the U.S. followed in the 19th century.
Being a conscientious reporter, Mr. Bialik proceded to consult actual linguists on the question of current usage, specifically Bernard Comrie, the eminent historical linguist:
In some countries, including France and Russia, the larger number names aren't typically used, according to Bernard Comrie, now the director of the department of linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told me. Outside of Europe, other nomenclature is also used, often beside the million-billion schemes. For example, "lakh" means 100,000 in India. Then there are oddball names for other large numbers, like "googol," or one followed by 100 zeros.
Prof. Comrie surveyed the world-wide confusion of large-number names in an entertaining 1996 post to an email list for linguists. He says that the roots of the confusion may lie in Mr. Chuquet's original manuscript, which alternated between the two definitions in different places. Noting that the U.K. had largely shifted to the U.S. definition following a 1974 announcement by the government of prime minister Harold Wilson, Prof. Comrie wrote, "I speculate on how a British bank would interpret a cheque made out for one billion pounds. Unfortunately, the cost of such an experiment would exceed the resources I have allocated to this research. Suggestions for funding will, of course, be gratefully received."
The referenced Linguist List post can be found here; further reporting by Mr. Bialik turned up the news that the American usage is predominant among British banks, obviating Prof. Comrie's experiment.
Now, Dr. Evil is British, so we might expect him to comport with British bank usage -- but crucially, he was also frozen in 1967, which means that his usage would predate Harold Wilson's change, and thus register "100 billion" as equivalent to an American 100 trillion. This makes more sense from a financial perspective, as well -- if we assume that Virtucon's $9 billion in annual revenue translates into a free cash flow of just 40%, or $3.6 billion, then Dr. Evil could get his $100 billion just by taking the company public, assuming he can grow at rates similar to Google's for the next 5 years. If you really feel like digging into that analysis, the model you'll need can be found here. We can also assume that Number Two, although operating in a "9-zeros-to-a-billion" financial world, would be aware of Dr. Evil's usage, and would have pointed out the use of a stock offering as a lower-risk strategy if he thought that 11 zeros would have done the trick (instead of 14).
It's safe to guess that Dr. Evil wanted to pull off a truly spectacular criminal act -- the sort you'd spend six years in Evil Medical School for -- so he'd have to do something a lot more remarkable than have an IPO. Thus, perhaps we are justified in concluding that he really had about $100 trillion in mind after all.