I am becoming irritated by the vagueness surrounding the origins of the word millionaire, and I am hoping the Varied Reader can help out. I was intrigued by the idea that (as Wikipedia puts it s.v. John Law) “The term ‘millionaire’ was coined specifically to describe the beneficiaries of Law’s scheme,” i.e. the Banque Royale (“The collapse of the Mississippi Company and the Banque Royale tarnished the word banque (‘bank’) so much that France abandoned central banking for almost a century, possibly precipitating Louis XVI’s economic crisis and the French Revolution”), but I can find no confirmation of that. The Wikipedia Millionaire article says “The word was first used (as millionnaire, double “n”) in French in 1719 and is first recorded in English (millionaire, as a French term) in a letter of Lord Byron of 1816, then in print in Vivian Grey, a novel of 1826 by Benjamin Disraeli.” French Wikipedia says “Le mot « millionnaire » a été utilisé en premier par Steven Fentiman en 1719,” but I can find no information on this alleged Steven Fentiman (not a very French-sounding name) or on what he might have published in 1719. The Trésor de la langue française informatisé says “1740 millionnaire «celui dont la fortune est de plusieurs millions» (LE SAGE, La Valise trouvée, ds Œuvres, éd. 1821, t.12, p.258),” but I can’t find an accessible edition of that volume of the Œuvres. Any further information will be gratefully &c. &c.

Just checked the OED (updated March 2002) and found “< French millionnaire, noun (early 18th cent. or earlier as millionaire) and adjective (1740),” so I’m guessing Steven Fentiman is a red herring (and now I’m wondering where he came from).


  1. Google Books has Le Sage 1740 ed p.172

    Earlier on Google Books is from the Mississippi Bubble — Le Courrier politique et galant No. XLV (3 June 1720):

    Mais Messieurs les Millionnaires seront encore assez heureux , que leur Bien ne diminüe que de moitié, qu’ils retranchent aussi la moitié de leurs dépenses , ils en seront encore plus que de raison : Ceux qui n’ont rien gagné voudroient bien être à leur place.
    Il seroit à souhaitter , que tant de Millionnaires, au lieu de faire un ridicule usage de faveurs de la fortune, suivissent un si bel exemple [of banker Étienne Demeuves who gave “plus de deux Millions” (of what unit?) to free jailed debtors]

    [4th edit] Note that Le Courrier politique et galant was published in Amsterdam.

  2. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    This is an annoying search because Google cannot get rid of missionnaires, but here’s a couple of early references.

    The Courrier politique et galant of Monday 3 June 1720 does use Millionnaires to refer to Mississipiens who got rich quick with Law’s scheme (Google Books).

    However, as early as 1722 Ernst Ludwig Carl’s Traité de la richesse des princes et de leurs états is already using the word in the modern sense (Google Books).

    By 1751, Pierre-Charles Berthelin adds the lemma to Richelet’s Dictionnaire de Rimes with the plain meaning ditissimus (BnF Gallica). I believe it wasn’t there in the 1739 edition, though I might have missed it because the ordering was not alphabetical yet. (NumeLyo).

    Mr Fentiman appeared on English Wikipedia on 12 December 2009, replacing poor John Law in a couple of clumsy edits, made from a Spanish proxy server that was subsequently banned for Wikipedia vandalism. He squatted the Millionaire page unmolested until 6 January 2019, when he was edited into “Adam & Paige Fentiman,” then back to “Steven Fentiman” within three minutes. This gave the game away and within three hours he was gone. He made a valiant attempt to come back, from a UK IP address, but by then the Counter-Vandalism Unit was onto him and he was undone.

  3. John Cowan says

    Search for [“millionnaires” -missionnaires]. The double quotes enforce that very form, and the negated term will be excluded. Once you’re there, click “Tools” in the bar just below the search bar and then “Any time” just below that, and you can choose a range of times. Sometimes it is useful to click on “All results” as well, and change it to “Verbatim”.

  4. Apparently, Nouveau Mercure galant October 1719 p.201 had a piece titled “Millionaire”.

    My mistake, it’s titled “Faits Fugitifs”; a sentence here has “Millionaire” following its better synonym, “Champignon de la Fortune”.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    John Law doesn’t have a very French sounding name either, although they did their best with it.

  6. I have a vague memory that millionnaire was taught to us as the correct spelling – that was in London, in the early nineteen-sixties, roughly ten years before (whatever the currency unit, even sterling) creeping inflation began to misalign that number with the meaning ‘rich beyond the dreams of avarice‘. Billionaire didn’t get used much in Britain (afaik) until Harold Wislon had switched Britain to the short scale.

  7. Contrast legionnaire, questionnaire with commissionaire, concessionaire. Does anyone still drop the /w/ in [ˌkwɛstʃənˈeər] ?

    In olden days…

    …”millionaire” was occasionally anglicized “millionary”.

    …someone worth n millions was succincly called an “n-fold million(n)aire”.

  8. also multimillionaire

    I’ve never seen proper definition, but I got an impression that to qualify you need to have more than ten million (and if less, you are just a millionaire then).

    Is it right? Or is it hundreds of millions?

  9. Does anyone still drop the /w/ in [ˌkwɛstʃənˈeər]

    I do remember it, but not in the past 30-40 years.

  10. from a UK IP address

    Not to be confused with a UKIP address.

  11. You are all terrific, and you each get the coveted Golden Hat award! Now someone should eliminate M Fentiman from French Wikipedia.

  12. Or is it hundreds of millions?

    wiki: “Individuals with net assets of 100 million or more of a currency have been termed hectomillionaires. The term centimillionaire has become synonymous with hectomillionaire in America, despite the centi- prefix meaning the one hundredth of a whole, not 100, in the metric system”

  13. multi-millionaire: Depends on where “many” starts for you. If you go by German (jocular) “eins, zwei, drei, ganz viele”, you can be a multi-millionaire starting from 4 millions in your selected currency.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Doing some back-of-the-envelope guesstimating from the first stats I googled up, probably pretty close to 50% of US “millionaires” (defined for this purpose as adults living in a household with household net assets >$1M) are in households where the net assets are >$1M but <$2M and close to 90% are in households where the net assets are >$1M but <$10M. My own sense is that "multimillionaire" probably kicks in at some fuzzily-defined level of wealth that is sufficiently more unusual, statistically speaking, than being a mere "millionaire" to be noteworthy, and that's plausibly under $10M. Of course what with inflation (as well as perhaps increases in wealth accumulation even adjusted for inflation) mere millionaires are no longer particularly uncommon (in the US, denominated in US dollars, YMMV if either of those parts is adjusted), but that's a different issue.

  15. My own sense is that “multimillionaire” probably kicks in at some fuzzily-defined level of wealth that is sufficiently more unusual, statistically speaking, than being a mere “millionaire” to be noteworthy, and that’s plausibly under $10M.

    Yes, when I think about it I don’t have a specific amount in mind but I think I’d call someone with anything over two million a “multimillionaire.” But of course I’m from a time when a million dollars was real money. (Cue Austin Powers clip.)

  16. January First-of-May says

    Russian has миллионер and миллиардер (the Russian numeric system goes million, milliard, trillion, quadrillion, in a weird hybrid of long and short scales – apparently it’s an Asian thing), but apparently – at least, back in the hyperinflationary days [circa 1922], when it was relevant – the next term up was триллионщик.

    Google finds modern results both for триллионщик and for the expected триллионер; there are, of course, very few of either in Russia, even in terms of rubles (there appear to be six or seven such people in the 2019 Forbes list), though it must have been much more common in the mid-1990s.

  17. Does Champignon sometimes mean champion, or was he describing them as the Mushrooms of Fortune?

    >close to 90% are in households where the net assets are >$1M but <$10M.

    And they feel embittered at their oppression by the 10% who are truly rich.

  18. Mushrooms of Fortune. Compare the English verb mushroom “grow very quickly”.

  19. Or more originally, “grow very quickly and then wither just as fast.”

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