That show debuted in 1999. But it was around the turn of the new century, and concurrent with the rise of Silicon Valley fortunes, when a few zeros got added in the popular imagination. Billion replaced million as the impossibly large yet routinely cited number.
Imagine bestowing a TV show with the title “Billions” in 1986 or 1996 — it would have seemed hubristic if not wholly fictional. By 2016, when “Billions” debuted on Showtime, it captured the zeitgeist. Forbes called the 2010s “A Decade of Billionaires,” and indeed, so many were minted in those years that the count nearly doubled between 2008 and 2020. There are 2,095 billionaires today, according to the publication.
Unless you were a Wall Street quant, however, trillion had long felt remote. It was like gazillion: a joke number. “The Trillionaire Next Door” is what Andy Borowitz, the humorist, titled his spoof 2000 book about day trading. In a radio appearance at the time, Mr. Borowitz said he wrote it because, “People aim too low. I mean, a millionaire? Please.”
That same year — 2000 — the word “trillion” appeared in The New York Times 856 times.
In the first three months of 2021, “trillion” has already appeared in this paper 723 times.
Much of that usage is in reference to the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that Congress passed in March. (Too much? Too little? The debate goes on). Faster than you could say, er, “1 followed by 12 zeros,” the Biden administration had already turned its attention to an infrastructure bill it hopes to pass later this year. The amount? $2.2 trillion.
Indeed, it’s not just money. The United Nations Environmental Program’s worldwide tree-planting movement, nicknamed the “billion tree campaign” when it started in 2006, has become the trillion-tree campaign. Some artificial intelligence executives are planning for a future of trillions of internet-connected devices. And scientists are already talking about Brood X, a colony of cicadas that will emerge from their 17-year hibernation to flood the United States this spring.
What’s the high end for the number of cicadas we can expect? One guess.