Like many translators I’m not really a numbers person. I did alright in Mathematics in school and have no problem doing my own accounts, but despite having a maths-teacher husband, and a father who started his career as a maths teacher, I’ve always preferred language to numbers. However I recently listened to a podcast episode about the language of numbers in which they mentioned a book by Alex Bellos called The Grapes Of Math (US)/Alex Through the Looking-Glass (UK) and my curiosity was piqued. I ended up reading not only that book, but the preceding volume Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (UK)/Here’s Looking at Euclid (US)!
Now I won’t pretend to have understood everything in the books 😉 but I do recommend them especially if you’re more mathematically minded than I am. Although they’re primarily journeys through the world of numbers, I couldn’t help but be interested in some of the language-related facts they contain*:
In The Grapes of Math:
- “The Sumerians did not look far when coming up with names. The word for one, ges, also meant man, or erect phallus”.
- “English … is the only major European language to have unrelated words for odd and even. In French, German and Russian, for example, the words for even and odd are ‘even’ and ‘not-even’: pair/impair, gerade/ungerade, chyotny/nyechyotny”
- Zipf’s law: in most languages the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table, i.e. there is a mathematical pattern governing word choices.
- “From the translation of the Latin [pars minuta prima and pars minuta secunda] we get the words ‘minute‘ and ‘second‘, our units of time, which are the most prominent modern relics of the ancient practice of counting in groups of sixty.”
- “The Arabs transliterated [a Sanskrit word] as jiba, a meaningless term, but it sounds a bit like jaib, meaning bosom, or bay, which they came to use. Latin versions of Arab texts translated jaib as sinus, the word for the fold of a toga over a woman’s breasts. Sinus became sine.”
- “Optical applications .. in fact, explain the origin of the word ‘focus‘: it is the Latin for ‘fireplace’. In German its etymology is clearer—’focus’ is Brennpunkt, or burning point.” (‘Focus’ meaning the burning point of reflected light beams).
- “The earliest stargazers observed that planets do not move in straight lines—they meander across the skies, often temporarily looping backward. (The word “planet” comes from the Greek planetes, wanderer.)”
- “A double negative in English, of course, is a positive. The linguist J. L. Austin once told a conference that there are no languages in which two positives make a negative. It is said that the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, replied: “Yeah, yeah.”
- “Latin versions of [Arab mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi]’s surname were later used to describe the arithmetical techniques he publicized, and are the root of the word ‘algorithm‘.”
- Non-linguistic but interesting fact: according to French mathematician Cédric Vilani, Paris has more professional mathematicians than any other city, about a thousand.
- “The term for a word that appears only once in a text is hapax legomenon, which sounds like a character from an Asterix story, or a Scandinavian death metal band, and in this text appears only once.”
It’s only when I got to the end of The Grapes of Math and read the acknowledgements that I realised Alex’s father is David Bellos, of Fish In My Ear fame! I then read Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, which is in fact the previous book:
- “The word ‘grocer’ … is a relic of a retailer’s preference for 12 – it comes from ‘gross’, meaning a dozen dozen, or 144.”
- “The procedure the Treasury used was … a system of ‘double tallies’. A piece of wood was split down the middle, giving two parts – the stock and the foil. A value was marked – tallied – on the stock and was also marked on the foil, which acted like a receipt. If I lent some money to the Bank of England, I would be given a stock with a notch indicating the amount – which explains the origin of the words stockholder and stockbroker – while the bank kept the foil, which had a matching notch.”
- “Imagine, as was common practice [in Pythagoras’ time], counting with pebbles. (Latin for pebble is calculus, which explains the origin of the word ‘calculate’.)”
- “Greek mathematics was almost entirely geometry – derived from their words for ‘earth’ and ‘measurement’”
- Ever heard of ‘piems’ ? They are poems that represent π (pi) in a way such that the length of each word (in letters) represents a digit (a 0 requires a ten-letter word). Based on the same principle, whole stories have been written in the pilish style. Quite a constraint!
- gEOLOgIZE, ILLEgIBLE and EISEgESIS are the only three nine-letter words that can be made with an electronic calculator (using the letters O, I, Z, E, h, S, g, L and B, which are the LED digits 0 to 9 when turned upside-down).
- Infinity symbol: did you know the endless loop ∞ is called a lemniscate? The word comes from the Latin lēmniscātus meaning “decorated with ribbons”.
- “Ambigram: a word (or set of words) written in such a way as to conceal other words, often the same word (or set of words) written upside-down.”
* in chronological order, but without page numbers as I read digital versions of both books.
Others posts you might like:
- Math 101: A reading list for lifelong learners
- Number Words – episode of Word of Mouth on BBC Radio 4
- Alex Bellos has a fortnightly puzzle column in The Guardian