Hectomillionaire vs. Centimillionaire

Sunday, December 17, 2006
By: Matthew Doucette

You're worth over one hundred million dollars (\$100,000,000)!

The problem:  What do we call you?

Let's find out...

Common Knowledge:

A million is 1,000,000.
A billion is 1,000,000,000.

A millionaire is a person worth over \$1,000,000.
A billionaire is a person worth over \$1,000,000,000.

So far, so good.

Decamillionaires:

What about a person worth over \$10,000,000 (ten million dollars)?

They are commonly called decamillionaires.

They are also called multimillionaires, but this is less accurate.  A person of "only" \$2,000,000 net worth is also a multimillionaire.  When it is important to differentiate between individuals of "only" a couple million dollars net worth versus those of ten million dollars net worth, decamillionaire is used instead.

Where does decamillionaire come from?

The International System of Units (SI), the world’s most widely used system of units, defines the prefix "deca-" to mean 10.

A million is 1,000,000.
A decamillion is 10,000,000, or 10 times a million.

If decamillion equals 10,000,000, then a decamillionaire is a person worth over \$10,000,000.

So far, so good.

Hectomillionaires:

What about a person worth over \$100,000,000 (one hundred million dollars)?

If we follow suit with "decamillionaire", and continue to use the SI prefixes for an answer, we will conclude they should be called hectomillionaires.

The International System of Units (SI) defines the prefix "hecto-" to mean 100.

Let's go through the steps that lead to hectomillionaire:

A million is 1,000,000.
A decamillion is 10,000,000, or 10 times a million.
A hectomillion is 100,000,000, or 100 times a million.

If hectomillion equals 100,000,000, then a hectomillionaire is a person worth over \$100,000,000.

So far, so good?

No, not really.  This is where the problem starts.  Please read on…

Hectomillionaire vs. Centimillionaire:

The problem is not everyone uses hectomillionaire.  Some examples:

1) Some banks use hectamillionaire.

Note the "a" in "hecta-" instead of the "o" in "hecto-".

This appears to be a small mistake, presumably derived from the "a" in the "deca-" in decamillionaire.

If you are to use the SI prefix "hecto-", then you should maintain the "o".  The "o" is a part of the prefix.  For example 100 meters is a hectometer, not a hectameter:

Does One Letter Matter?  Yes!  An example from the SI prefixes:

"deca-" means 10.
"deci-" means 1/10 or 0.1.

(Using "deci-" to mean 10, where "deca-" should be used, is also a common mistake.)

This is a minor mistake, however, and it is clear the intent was to use the SI prefixes.  Any banks using hectamillionaire should have their spelling corrected and use hectomillionaire instead.

Even howstuffworks.com incorrectly spells hectomillionaire as hectamillionaire.  It seems their mistake was using banks with the spelling mistake as their source of information.

2) Forbes.com uses centimillionaire!

There are 45 occasions of Forbes using centimillionaire that Google finds as of today, December 17th, 2006:

"Centi-" is an SI prefix, too.  It appears there was intent to use the SI prefixes, but unlike the hectamillionaire spelling mistake, the mistake here is the wrong prefix!

"Centi-" means 1/100, or 0.01, not 100!

When I first stumbled upon this incorrect usage of the SI prefixes, I emailed the author of the particular Forbes article to correct him.  I assumed it was a mistake, and a potentially embarrassing one seeing Forbes is expected to not make mistakes in money terminology.  (I could not find a record of this email.  I wrote it about a year prior to the writing of this article.)  The article was not changed, and the author did not write me back.

3) Wikipedia uses centimillionaire, too!

"A centimillionaire has a net worth of more than 100 million units of currency." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millionaire

But, Wikipedia can be changed, by anyone.  You can go edit and change centimillionaire to be hectomillionaire right now.  (I already have, and it was changed back.)

There is on-going discussion on Wikipedia whether centimillionaire or hectomillionaire is correct:

"centimillionaire, being someone with 100 million or more. Is this a correct use of the term centimillionaire?? I would have thought a centimillionaire would have a mere \$10,000." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Millionaire

Whoever wrote this is correct, according to the International System of Units (SI).  But, he/she has not won the argument on Wikipedia (at least not yet), or the main article would be changed.

Part of the justification of Wikipedia's usage of centimillionaire is Forbes' usage of it.

I am not really sure how you go about winning on Wikipedia, but these types of mistakes (assuming this is a mistake for the sake of this point) are self-fulfilling prophecies, considering the power and reach of Wikipedia, currently the 12th most popular website according to Alexa Internet, Inc.

Which Is Correct? Hectomillionaire or Centimillionaire?

I am no expert on the English language, but it seems that usage dictates definition.

This is why words change meaning over time.  If everyone uses centimillionaire to mean \$100,000,000 net worth, then it means what people think it means, and therefore is correct.

However, such events would not make hectomillionaire incorrect.

No amount of usage of centimillionaire to mean \$100,000,000 net worth changes that hectomillionaire also means \$100,000,000 net worth.  Hectomillionaire means this by definition, the same as hectomillion means 100,000,000 by definition.  Hectomillionaire will continue to be correct, regardless of the outcome of centimillionaire, unless and until it is used to mean something else (very unlikely).

What further complicates the issue of considering popular usage, is it entails the popular usage of "centi-" and "hecto-" as prefixes on their own.  This evidence showcases "centi-" as clearly defined to mean 0.01 and "hecto-" to mean 100.

Why Does This Problem Exist?

Why would anyone have chosen centimillionaire to begin with, when hectomillionaire is clearly correct?

It was a mistake.

In other words, ignorance.

The United States of America does not use the metric system, and therefore USA citizens are likely to be unfamiliar with it.  I am guessing that centimillionaire has USA origin.

Centimillionaire immediately set off a red flag when I read it, as I have run into "centi-" many times in my life from our (Canada's) adoption of the metric system.  It is quite common for a Canadian to understand that it takes one hundred centimeters to equal one meter.

Centimillionaire, I am assuming, does not set off such red flags to USA citizens who are not involved with the metric system.  I can only assume this.

The USA is one of the last few remaining countries to have not switched to the metric system:

Countries with non-metric measurement systems.
(Image from Wikipedia's Metric system article.)

I find it interesting that the USA is (correct me if I am wrong) the wealthiest nation in the world, in terms of the amount (not average) of millionaires and billionaires.  If so, it has more individuals of \$100,000,000 net worth than any other country.  This makes them the country that most requires a word to describe them.  Unfortunately for the metric system, the USA has not adopted it yet.

Let's forget about hectomillionaire and centimillionaire for a moment, and concentrate on just the prefixes:

Choosing "centi-" instead of "hecto-" to use as a multiplier of 100 is a mistake.

That is a fact, by definition.

It is an elementary mistake.  In elementary school, we used centimeters all the time.  I clearly understood that a centi-meter is one hundredth of a meter, not 100 meters.  I understood that a decimeter was 10 centimeters or one tenth of a meter.  (Decimeters are not as commonly known as centimeters, as most school work fits on a piece of paper; Decimeters are too big for that.)  This is the power of metric system.  It allows a very clear understanding of powers of ten, in both directions (larger and smaller).

I continued the argument against centimillionaire on Wikipedia:

"I think the problem comes from the USA's lack of usage with the metric system. I bet most of those Google results are USA. People in countries unfamiliar with the metric system do not see what a POOR choice "centimillionaire" is. It is so clear that "hectomillionaire" is the correct choice. I'm not just saying it is technically correct, I'm saying it is clearly correct, and naturally understood to be correct by anyone familiar with "centi-". It's just odd that the richest nation just happens to be one of the only countries left not using metric... and therefore opting into such a bad choice (out of ignorance). I think Wikipedia "backing" this improper usage is wrong, and should set the stage correctly." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Millionaire

I even edited the page to use hectomillionaire, but it was reverted back to centimillionaire.

Conclusion:

Hectomillionaire:

Hectomillionaire is correct.

It is correct by definition, even if centimillionaire is correct.  It will remain correct unless it is eventually used improperly to mean something else, where upon its meaning would change.  This is identical to what is happening to "centimillionaire" today.

Centimillionaire:

Centimillionaire is wrong, but is in risk of becoming correct.

It will remain wrong until popular usage dictates otherwise.  If this happens, it will create a contradiction as "centimillion" will continue to mean 10,000, by definition, even if "centimillionaire" means \$10,000,000 net worth.  Also, the popular usage of the "centi-" prefix to mean one hundredth (0.01) will still be intact.

The reason I say "in risk of becoming correct" is because it is technically incorrect, and an obvious and elementary mistake to those of us who use metric.

Thoughts on Ignorance:

I wrote this article because there is a lesson in all of this.  It is an example of ignorance.

Basically, someone unfamiliar with the metric system uses it out of necessity, but, due to ignorance, uses it incorrectly.

How Incorrect is Ignorance?

Ignorance is hard to measure, but in this case we are dealing with mathematics!  Mathematically speaking, using "centimillionaire" instead of "hectomillionaire" is an error of four orders of magnitude in size.  That is 10,000 times off.  To be explicit, a centimillionaire is a person of \$10,000 net worth instead of \$100,000,000.  That is \$99,990,000 off!

You may think this is a foolish comparison as nobody really "sees" \$10,000 when they read "centimillionaire", but you would be wrong.  When I first read it, I saw \$10,000 as plain as day.  The metric system really is that easy to understand.

Ultimately if centimillionaire "wins" over hectomillionaire, it will remain a glaring and obvious example of ignorance, especially to those of us who deal in centimeters instead of inches.

2007-Jan-13 Update:

Apparently the same problem is occuring at the billionaire scale:

"In 1999, Gates's wealth briefly surpassed \$100 billion causing him to be
referred to in the media as a "centibillionaire".[44]" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Gates

Although there is some contraversy on whether Bill Gates ever acheived \$100,000,000,000 net worth, the media is wrong with their terminology.  If Gates reached such a net worth, he would be a hectobillionaire, not a centibillionaire.  A centibillionaire would be an individual of "only" \$10,000,000 net worth, equivalent to a decamillionaire.