Saturday, April 27, 2013

GrammatiCats: XXIV (and Other Roman Numerals)

Yeah, it's a little sneaky, but look: how many grammar words do YOU know that start with "X"?  No jury will convict me!

Actually, though, I'm super jazzed about this post.  I'm a huge Latin / Roman history dweeb, and it came as a surprise to me when I first met someone who couldn't read Roman numerals.

"But didn't you just, you know, want to snort them up your nose and wear them on your face when you were taught them in school?" I asked, perplexed.

Well, apparently not.

But!  Since we do still need them for keeping track of popes, Superbowls and Land Before Time sequels, here for your edification is a no-fear guide to Roman numerals.

Here is the thing to know about Roman numerals: the letters don't actually stand for a word.  They're more like our tally marks (you know, the kind that cartoon prisoners always carve into the walls of their cell to keep track of the days): a quick shorthand that can be easily scratched into dirt, wax, paper, or what-have-you. 

And there's good evidence that many of the first numbers actually come from hand signs.  That may or may not be historically true, but it sure does make them easier to remember.  For example:

(Apologies for the relative blandness of these first snaps; cat anatomy is poorly suited for this project.)

That one's easy, right?  And "five" is just all five fingers of one hand, like so:

When you see a smaller number before a larger one, that's your cue to subtract --

-- so you could read this 4, for example, as "one less than five," or "one away from five."  Don't feel bad if that's still not very intuitive, though: the actual Romans messed this up all the time.

(By the way, did you know that the Latin name for the pinkie is "auricularius digitus"?  You might recognize that "auri-" part from "aural," as in "ear."  Yep: it's your little ear-finger, cuz that's where you stick it when nobody's looking."  You dirty dog, you.)

And when you get to ten, you're just using all ten fingers:

(This can also be thought of as an upside-down V under a right-side-up one.  Not the easiest thing to hand-mime.)

Of course, after you go above 10, the finger-counting doesn't work so well anymore.  Let's take a look at the bigger picture.

Roman numerals don't have any way to express a zero, but otherwise, they are written from left to right, just as we're used to. Here, test your knowledge by translating these lyrics (all Top-XL smash hits from the hottest artists in Latium!):

  • Working IX to V, what a way to earn a living
  • Baby, you were just sweet XVI
  • Oh, what a night - late December, back in 'LXIII
  • 'Cuz she's still preoccupied with MCMLXXXV
  • So tonight I'm gonna party like it's MCMXCIX
Remember: when a small number precedes a bigger one, it's "(smaller) less than (bigger)"

"That's cool and all," you might say, "but I'm never gonna remember all those letters."

That's the real beast, isn't it?

Fortunately, we get a couple of helpful patterns to follow.  Notice how:

1.  Everything is 1s and 5s, all the way down.  Each number is one-half or one-fifth of the one before it.

and 2.  You get an easy leg up with M and C.  M actually replaced the older symbol because it fits with mille, the Latin word for thousand.  (And you know that from millenium, millipede, millimeter, etc.)  Same thing with C: it fits the Latin centum (century, centimeter, percent, cents, etc.) so it eventually replaced the older sign for 100.

That just leaves D and L.

And I gotta be honest: I tried REALLY HARD to think up a good memory hook for these two.

I checked to see whether 50 Cent's real name had an L in it.

I looked for a D in the Proclaimers' song, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)".

I even considered the US $50 bill.  (Short answer: Ulysses S. Grant does have an L in his name, but how useless is that for non-American peeps, and how many of even us corn-fed stars-and-stripers remember that Grant is on the 50?)

Then I thought, "You know what we need?  A kick-ass mnemonic.  Like 'King Henry Died Upstairs Drinking Chocolate Milk' for the metric system, or 'My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza-Pies' for the solar system."

(Yes, I know - Pluto's not in the club anymore.  Don't take away my pizza dreams.)

So here's what I came up with - you ready for this?

My Dumb Cat Likes Xeroxing Venomous Insects.


Drop microphone, walk off stage.

Further Reading:

Roman Numerals Quizzes - For real, you guys.  I was actually going to write up a little quiz of my own until I saw this page, and promptly threw down my pen in shame.  This site will SCHOOL YOU.  (With pictures!)

Wikipedia: Roman Numerals - If you do in fact want to snort them up your nose and wear them on your face, this is an excellent starting point.  Lots of neato history and things you didn't even know we used Roman numerals for.  I didn't, anyway!

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

Well, just one today: our own Peaches, who will eat treats off a scanner and slobber remorselessly on the glass.

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. Thanks for a very useful post. I think I understand the system a little better, now. And it was so much fun to read!

    1. Thanks, Carolyn; edutainment is the highest compliment I could receive!

  2. Roman numerals are no longer taught in schools. I find that sad.

    1. What?! No! Preposterous! Why would... how could...

      ... no, nevermind - just wheel me to the rest home, where I can pay pinochle with the rest of the washed-up old geezers. But we're doing it with Roman numeral playing cards, dammit!

  3. I love Roman numerals and I use them in my blog titles sometimes. Once hitting the 40+ realm, though, I think I am pretty dead in the water.

    I like the image of you dropping the mic and walking off stage lol hilarious. Unfortunately, I will likely still mess up any of the larger numbers in roman numerals.