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The Write Way

4 October 2002

How Many Is a Trillion?


We were listening to the news while having breakfast one day last week, when my husband gave one of those "hurrumph!" noises that men are so good at producing.

The trigger for this had been a statement that some company or other had made $1.2 billion loss and given the CEO a $4.6 million Golden Handshake.

The Love of My Life commented that all this talk of "1.2 billion" and the like was a deliberate ploy to gloss over numbers that are mind-bogglingly huge. So huge that we lesser mortals have Buckley's of ever being able to figure out just how much has been lost (or given away as the case may be).

So I started to think about numbers and their little trains of zeros that they carry along behind them. According to,  "If you are American, it (a billion) is undoubtedly 1,000,000,000. This amount is known to traditionally minded British people as `a thousand million' ... 

"A trillion is then 1,000,000,000,000 ..." or a million million.

Even though there are lots of zeros there, it still doesn't really mean much, does it? But try saying some of these numbers out aloud: 

"... at the close of business Friday, September 29, 2000, the Federal (US) debt stood at $5,674,178,209,886.86" that's, "Five trillion, six hundred seventy-four billion, one hundred seventy-eight million, two hundred nine thousand, eight hundred eighty-six dollars and eighty-six cents. [Congressional Record, Page S9601 - October 2, 2000]."

Still doesn't mean much?

Then try this little exercise ...

Bill Bryson (in his book, Notes from a Big Country) gives a fascinating illustration of just how much this is: 

If you were locked in a vault and you could keep every dollar bill you initialled, (we're assuming that you initial one bill every second and that you don't need to eat, sleep or take comfort breaks!) do you know how long it would take you to make a million dollars?

Twelve days of non-stop effort would earn you a million dollars. 

120 days would give you $10 million.

1200 days - $100 million. That's over three years to get a paltry $100 million ... Still a long way to go ...

After 31.7 years, you'd be a billionaire.

But wait, there's more ... we're still only at the billionaire stage ... Keep initialling, Kiddo!

After initialling a dollar bill every second without stopping, it would take you 31,709.8 years to get to your first trillion!

Now do you know why big companies use fractions and words to gloss over their profits and losses?

They seem to find it expeditious to pull the wool over the public's eyes ... 

Ummm ... Would you believe they find it expedient?

'Expeditious' refers to something that's done speedily and efficiently, while 'expedient' refers to something that's convenient, rather than necessarily right.

My tale of woe last week about finding myself once again drawn into the Twilight Zone of Reader's Digest subscriptions brought forth plenty of sympathy, and a number of less sympathetic "I-told-you-sos."

You'd think I'd have had more sense, wouldn't you? After all, I moved house three times and actually shifted interstate before I finally evaded them last time! And yes, I did send letters to that special Locked Bag address they give you to cancel your subscription. You know, the one that will ensure your cancellation is brought to the attention of one of their "expert staff" i.e. the one that goes into the sorting bin marked: "Urgent Attention Incinerator Operator."

Sigh ...


Here's a useful little FAQ item that Dave found for those of you in the throes of pregnancy or contemplating it ...

Q: Should I have a baby after 35?
A: No, 35 children is enough.

Q: I'm two months pregnant now. When will my baby move?
A: With any luck, right after he finishes college.

Q: What is the most common pregnancy craving?
A: For men to be the ones who get pregnant.

Q: What is the most reliable method to determine a baby's sex?
A: Childbirth.

Q: The more pregnant I get, the more often strangers smile at me. Why?
A: 'Cause you're fatter than they are.

Q: My childbirth instructor says it's not pain I'll feel during labor, but pressure. Is she right?
A: Yes, in the same way that a tornado might be called an air current.

Q: Is there any reason I have to be in the delivery room while my wife is in labor?
A: Not unless the word "alimony" means anything to you.

Q: Is there anything I should avoid while recovering from childbirth?
A: Yes, pregnancy.

Q: Our baby was born last week. When will my wife begin to feel and act normal again?
A: When the kids are in college.

 ... Bring back memories, Girls?

This week's quiz:

Let's keep doing these ... choose the word from the list that's closest in meaning to the word in capitals:

1. He was LAMPOONED: praised, satirised, surrounded, caught, struck

2. A NOCENT dose: disagreeable, healing, harmful, useless, narcotic

3.  OCULAR proof: positive, visual, questionable, scientific, probable

4. A RISIBLE mistake: pardonable, inexcusable, laughable, costly, doubtful

5. SALUTARY policies: intricate, beneficial, secret, domestic, extensive

6. His wife is a TERMAGANT: quarrelsome woman, child-beater, invalid, spend-thrift, miser

7. A SANGUINARY contest: uneven, beneficial, decisive, bloody, notable, doubtful

8. IMPECCABLE attire: strange, inappropriate, faultless, customary, formal

9. He was warned against MENDICANTS: quack doctors, socialists, liars, robbers, beggars

10.We DECRIED the play: praised, condemned, advertised, reviewed, enjoyed

Phil found this newsworthy item and sent it in:

A truck loaded with thousands of copies of Roget's Thesaurus crashed as it left a New York publishing house last Thursday, according to the Associated Press. Witnesses were stunned, startled, aghast, taken aback, stupefied, confused, punchy, shocked, rattled, paralyzed, dazed, bewildered, mixed up, surprised, awed, dumbfounded, nonplused, flabbergasted, astounded, amazed, confounded, astonished, boggled, overwhelmed, horrified, numbed, and perplexed.

Chuckle ...

Last week's quiz:

Choose the word from the list that's closest in meaning to the word in capitals:

1. A MEDICABLE  disease: malignant, fatal, CURABLE, infectious, hereditary

2. He was guilty of PECULATION: desertion, arson, murder, EMBEZZLEMENT, lying

3. An UNCTUOUS substance: hard, pliable, OILY, gritty, poisonous

4. A VERACIOUS historian: prejudiced, inaccurate, stimulating, TRUTHFUL, mediaeval

5. A SARDONIC expression: encouraging, sickly, SARCASTIC, confident, calm

6. An IMMUTABLE law: variable, uniform, UNALTERABLE, disregarded, unjust

7. TEPID waters: foul, clear, hot, boiling, LUKEWARM

8. Such thought DEBILITATE the mind: strengthen, stimulate, engross, WEAKEN, fill

9. A FERINE cry: blood-curdling, cat-like, WILD, mourning, piercing

10.The story was GERMANE: foreign, unknown, believable, RELEVANT, fictitious

Thanks to everyone who's left a message and stuck a pin on the map:

A Little Something Extra

If you're writing any sort of fiction, or a biography, or just for the sheer fun of it, this site is a treasure! You can type in any date and it will tell you what was going on in the world on that day. You get newspaper headlines, pop charts, TV shows, books, toys and birthdays for dates from 1800 to 2001!  

Word of the week: Eisoptrophobia (n) Fear of mirrors ... and can't we all relate to this? Especially when the weather warms up and the time to don the swimming cossie draws ever closer ... shudder ...

Oxymoron of the week: Boy Bands with Instruments ... My son and daughter (both "real" musicians) assure me that this is a good one!

And a Latin phrase for when you suspect one of your your friends may be in a "delicate condition."

Intellego eam praegantem esse. (I hear she's pregnant.)



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