A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 33: Roman Numerals

Image courtesy of wwarby on Flickr

Image courtesy of wwarby on Flickr

Yesterday, I wrote about why we use the word football for American football, when there isn’t that much kicking involved. I did so because it was just before Super Bowl XLIX (which I mistakenly spelled as one word ‘Superbowl’). I naturally used the conventional Roman numerals to denote the 49, and that got me thinking more about the numerals today.

Initially, I set out to found out the origin of the numerals, thinking that they may stand for words. While, I found some suggestion on the internet that the C (=100), for example, stands for centum, it appears to be much more confusing than that. The Wikipedia entry talks about a few different theories of how the symbols came about.

But, I nevertheless did find out some things that I didn’t know about Roman numerals before. While whole numbers can be represented with the seven numerals (I, V, X, L, C, D and M), what about fractions?


There is an additional symbol, S, which can be used. S stands for semis, which of course means half. While Roman numerals are not so common today, mainly because of their limitations, in Roman times, it was important to be able to represent fractions, for example when it comes to money. Unlike the base 10 counting system we use today, where it’s impossible to represent a third accurately, the Romans used a base 12 system for counting. S therefore stood for 6/12. For 1/12, a simple dot was used. So:

  • “•” is 1/12
  • “•••” is 3/12 (or 1/4)
  • “S•••” is 9/12 (or 3/4)

Large numbers

So the fractions take care of the very small, but what about the larger numbers? M, which represents 1000, is the largest numeral, and putting a load of Ms together would begin to get silly. One way that larger numbers were written was done was by putting a horizontal line over the top of a numeral to multiply by 1000. So a V with a line over it would be 5,000. For even larger numbers vertical lines could be placed either side of the numerals, in addition to the horizontal line, to multiply by 100,000. An X with a vertical line above it and a horizontal line either side would be 1,000,000.

Today, we can still see Roman numerals in a few places, for example on clocks, at the beginning of books and at the end of TV programmes (at least in the UK. Are Roman numerals used on TV programmes elsewhere to show the date they were made?) In an article on the BBC from 13 years ago, it is claimed that the use of Roman numerals on TV programmes was to disguise the age of programmes, as it can sometimes be difficult to decipher Roman numerals easily.

Finally, I started with football, which is where I will finish. Ever since Super Bowl V, Roman Numerals have been used to identify which iteration of the NFL’s final game is being played. However, next year, that’s set to change, for one year at least. Instead of calling it Super Bowl L, it will just be called Super Bowl 50. The reason? The NFL thought that Super Bowl L didn’t look very good. No need for fans of the numerals to worry though, 2017 will see their return with Super Bowl LI.

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2015 by in Language and tagged , , .


February 2015

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