So there I was, preaching away in Spanish – predicando – like I’ve done for so many years. The topic was social inequality based on the words of one of the Hebrew prophets. And then it happened, as it does occasionally; I said something that didn’t quite sound right and now I was getting the look from a few of my parishioners. Pastor: “billonario” no existe en Español. After the service, we talked about what I had said and I was told by my native Spanish speakers – representing Mexico and a number of Central American countries – that even though they understood what I said and meant, a word for billionaire does not exist in Spanish. Carumba – the land of Ferdinand and Isabella which sent Cortés and Pizarro gold-digging to the New World doesn’t have billonario in its lexicon? Pastor, será mejor decir multi-millonario.
Of course, they are right. With a little research, we discover that billionaire is an American phenomenon and word. Based on the French millionnaire, American writers began using billionaire in the late 1800s – an obvious reflection of speaking patterns.* John Rockefeller wouldn’t become the world’s first billionaire until the 1910s, but what other society would or could birth such a term? America was, and still is, the society where the ability to risk and go beyond the boundaries is a great strength (and sometimes a weakness). American ingenuity, inventiveness, and drive have changed the world for the better – over and again. In the process, some have become billionaires; as applied to a person, the new term was within the bounds of American imagination and reach. Rockefeller (and his contemporary Andrew Carnegie) both inherently knew that they were treading upon new ground with their massive accumulations of capital. Their intuition inspired their grand efforts in philanthropy; they somehow knew the incredible quantities in their possession were meant not only for themselves and their families, but for others as well. Both worked hard to give away large portions of their excess, impressively so.
Do you know how much a billion is? Since all of us live in the post-Rockefeller world, we’re very accustomed to the word billionaire. Perhaps we assume it to be the next step beyond millionaire. It’s actually much more than that. A million seconds pass by in eleven and a half days. A billion seconds, on the other hand, pass by in thirty-one and a half years. Could you spend $500 a day ($15,000 monthly) – on food, rent, necessities, and some of the finer things of life? If you had a million dollars to start with, it would take you five and a half years to exhaust it at $500 a day. If you had a billion dollars to start with, you could spend $20,000 a day ($600,000 monthly) for sixty years and not even exhaust one-half of what you started with. A billion is significantly beyond a million; zero is closer to one million than one million is to one billion.
Languages are living systems, adapting and changing constantly. Soon enough, Spanish dictionaries will officially adopt the word billonario. The one-half billion native Spanish speakers in the world (about 100 million more than native English speakers) will be able to speak about and understand social inequality on more specific terms. Tener billones quiere decir tener responsibilidad grande.**
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll look at what more than 100 years of billionaire and its influence has meant for American and world society.
* The word equivalent of billion has been in use by the French and Italians since the 1600s. Originally, billion meant double million (bi); the British used this terminology previously, understanding a billion numerically as 1,000,000,000,000. The American understanding of nine zeros for billion is now commonly accepted worldwide; twelve zeros after the original digit, of course, designates trillion.
** To have billions means having great responsibility.
Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, dealing with social inequality and similar issues, is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.