To a lay person, the claim that no one had heard of the word “trillion” a decade ago may seem valid. A decade is a long time; a trillion is an unusually large amount. Perhaps it’s true that no one had ever heard the word back in 2007.
We looked into it — and it’s not true.
In fact, 10 years ago to the day from Trump’s speech, Reuters used the word in a tweet.
Not only that, but it was at least the 31st time that the word had appeared on Twitter. The first tweet that still exists which uses the word is this one from Ewan Spence, written in a form of Old English known as Mid-Aughts Tech.
So we have use of the word going back at least to 2006. Given that Spence didn’t need to explain the meaning of the word, we can assume that its use stretches back further still.
At least 20 years, in fact. In 1987, The Post ran a story about the unimaginably large sum of a trillion dollars. Here’s reporter Boyce Rensberger’s attempt to make that sum seem understandable to readers of that bygone era:
Suppose somebody paid you $1 for reading each word of news and features in a typical edition of The Washington Post. Since one day’s Post is officially estimated to contain 80,000 nonadvertising words, you’d have $80,000 after reading one day’s paper. In the unlikely event that you read every word of every paper for a year, you’d have a cool $29.2 million. But to read a trillion words and earn $1 trillion, you’d have to read The Post every day for 34,247 years.
If you’d started when he wrote that, you’d still have over 34,206 years to go.
As it turns out, though, the history of “trillion” is even older than the 1980s.
Google spent years indexing thousands of old books and created a tool that allows you to search for uses of words over time. We searched for the words thousand, million, billion, trillion and quadrillion to see how frequently each had been used. The vertical axis is the percent of books including the word; the horizontal axis is the year.
People had used the word trillion at least as far back as 1800!
The Oxford English Dictionary includes citations for the first recorded use of a word and, as it turns out, “trillion” has been in use since at least 1671. (Thanks to Chaz Perin for dipping into his OED to look this up for me.) That first usage was in a book called “A Compleat Body of Arithmetic,” written that year by Samuel Jeake.
Some people say “millions of millions of millions,” he writes — but then there are some who use the word “trillion.” This isn’t the same trillion that we use now; a trillion as we use it now is a million million, not a million million million. But there’s the word regardless, in use 336 years before 2007. Fifty years after the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts.
If we assume that Trump was not actually suggesting that the word “trillion” was new as of a decade ago, we can instead consider it metaphorically. No one had heard the word “trillion” a decade ago, he may be arguing, in the sense that, back then, spending trillions of dollars was a rarity. That the expense of the war was so high that it’s shocking it can be described using the word trillion-with-a-T.
That’s not really the case. By 2007, the national debt was measured in the trillions; as that Reuters tweet shows, so was the federal budget. It’s true that trillions are becoming the norm as a metric at a rapid clip. It took 682 days to go from $8 trillion in national debt to $9 trillion. It took only 188 days, from last September until two weeks ago, to go from $20 trillion to $21 trillion. (Bars below are colored according to the president during the transition between debt levels.)
In fact, Americans were familiar with the word “trillion” in 2007 because of an escalating cost that the country was incurring: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September 2007, The Post reported that the wars were costing $720 million a day, and that, the prior year, one estimate put the cost of the Iraq War alone at $2.2 trillion to that point.
Put another way, a decade ago politicians would certainly be within their rights to marvel at how war in the Middle East was costing trillions of dollars. Meaning that they would have not only heard the word — they’d have heard Trump’s specific argument.