Word of the week: Trillion

October 15, 2020 Tim Glynne-Jones

“I talk to the trees but they don’t listen to me.” So sang Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon. It was the song that both began and ended his singing career, an optimistic little love song that briefly offered a tantalising glimpse into the soul of the Pale Rider before slamming the window shut again.

Recent revelations suggest that those opening lyrics were, however, not entirely accurate. It’s not that the trees weren’t listening, more a case of selective deafness.

Thanks to not at all eccentric German woodland expert Peter Wohlleben, we now know that trees do talk, to each other at least. They also nurture their young, warn one another of danger and show fear.

Wer wußte!

Anyway, it’s when you delve deeper into such stories that you come across amazing stats like this: there are an estimated 3,040,000,000,000 trees on planet Earth. Three trillion and a bit, in other words (even if that ‘bit’ does happen to be 40 billion.) It’s all relative.

Trillion is not a word you often hear bandied about. Not even Brian Cox uses it, preferring the more scientific “billions and billions”. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a word invented solely to describe the national debt.

But it’s not. The word ‘trillion’ was, as the name suggests, invented to describe a million to the power of three: a million, million, million. Back then a billion meant a million million. You can see the logic.

So where did the logic go?

I seem to be forever defending the Americans against false accusations of taking literal liberties but I have to do so again, for it was the Italians and French, not the Americans, who changed the definition of ‘trillion’ to a million million and ‘billion’ to a thousand million. Something to do with a change in the way big numbers were written – grouping the zeros into threes rather than sixes. Not much of an excuse, if you ask me.

And it’s not a recent development either. Though it took Britain until the 1970s to capitulate and fall into line, the original ‘long scale’ trillion was a 15th century invention and the change in magnitude to the ‘short scale’ took place in the late 17th century. You wonder what they had in sufficient quantities to merit inventing such a vast number in the first place.

Trees I suppose. And stars.

You’ve read the blog, now buy the book. Word of the Week: Volume One (a collection of 52 words) is available in paperback from word-of-the-week.com