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For example, I just searched Shakespeare and saw hundreds of references to "thousand", a dozen or two references to "million", and no occurrences of the word "billion".

Update: The Wikipedia article on the long and short scales was useful.

closed as too broad by Pieter Geerkens, Brasidas, Lars Bosteen, Semaphore Apr 30 '18 at 3:14

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    Welcome to History:SE. How often do you think that Shakespeare would have had cause to write about 1,000,000,000,000 of something? (The number "one billion" in "British English" used to mean one million million ) – sempaiscuba Apr 29 '18 at 8:17
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    'Through the centuries' is awfully broad so you might want to edit it to avoid it being closed. As for 'billion', see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billion. – Lars Bosteen Apr 29 '18 at 8:19
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    Needs a tighter timeline and some sort of definition of "average person". Does it mean a literate person, a numerate person, an educated person, or a serf. By "average" is the intent "arithmetic mean", mode, or median across the population. Geographic tightening is also essential, as an "average" Amazonian tribesperson even today probably has no conception of numbers much larger than a few thousand. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 29 '18 at 14:00
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    Shakespeares not average! The average man through the centuries and around the globe would have been illiterate and not very numerate. The average tradesman probably knew up to his thousands and the average hunter-gatherer probably went one, two, three then many. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 29 '18 at 18:51
  • @Mozibur Ullah: On the contrary, Shakespeare made a living by writing plays that appealed to the common people of his place & time. – jamesqf Apr 30 '18 at 4:18
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Although I haven't read it, you may be interested in the book, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace. I believe this book discusses anthropological studies showing that in most hunter-gather societies three is effectively the highest number (anything higher than four is refered to with a concept of "many").

According to Wikipedia, by the 5th century BCE the Vedic civilization gave names to many very large numbers including multiple infininties. The largest number the Ancient Greeks had a word for was only one hundred million, but Archimides worked with numbers up to 10^64.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the concept of "a billion" made its way from French into English by about Shakespeare's time.

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