Posted by: Jack Henry | November 21, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Richard Lederer on Numbers

Good morning! Since many of you enjoy Richard Lederer’s columns when I post them, I have another one to give you from a few weeks ago. This one is all about numbers. (Thanks, Ron, you’re number one!)

The English Language Always Has Your Number

It is not only the mathematician who is fascinated by numbers. Whether we know it or not, we all speak numbers, from zero through 10, and well beyond. It’s as easy as one-two-three.

From time to time, I hear people say, “That didn’t work. I guess we’ll have to go back to ground zero.” Ground zero is a fairly new compound in English. It refers to the point on the Earth’s surface closest to a detonation. The term was first used in 1946 to refer to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the sites of nuclear detonations in World War II. It broadened its meaning to mean any detonation site, and now any site that is a center of activity.

People often confuse ground zero with the more logical phrase “I guess we’ll have to go back to square one.” Here the metaphor is probably rooted in the playground game four-square, which first appeared in the early 1950s. A player starts in square one and tries to move through squares two and three to square four by hitting a ball that is unrerturnable into one of the other squares. The losing player goes back to square one.

Hidden forms of the number two occur in the words between, betwixt, combine, zwieback and twilight, in which tween, twixt, bi, zwie and twi all mean “two.” The root sense of zwieback is “twice baked” and of combine “to join two things.” Twilight is literally the time of two lights, the fading sunset and the emerging light of the stars.

Three Dog Night was a popular rock band in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Their name, however, preceded the band. A three-dog night is a night so cold that it takes three dogs to keep you warm.

You might call a low-down skunk a four-flusher. Four-flusher characterizes a poker player who pretends to hold a flush but in fact holds a worthless hand of only four same-suit cards.

Now let’s take five for the number five. It’s easy to see that the quint in quintet and quintuplets means “five.” Less apparent is the quint in quintessence. The ancient Greeks held that everything in the world was composed of four elements—earth, air, fire and water. To these the philosopher Aristotle added a new element: quinta essentia, “fifth essence.”

To deep six is naval idiom that means “to throw overboard,” with six signifying “six fathoms (36 feet) deep. The original term came from measuring the water depth under a ship using a lead-weighted sounding line. The lines were marked at two, three, five, seven, 10, 13, 15, 17 and 20 fathoms. If the depth was at a mark, the leadsman would call “by the mark” followed by the number; if the depth was between two marks, he would call “by the deep” followed by the estimated number. Six fathoms would be “by the deep six.” By extension, to deep six has come to denote generally “to get rid of someone or something.”

Your sixth sense—the one beyond sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell—may be leading you to seventh heaven, the very height of happiness. The Mesopotamians created the concept of seven heavens, and the phrase has come to mean “a state of supreme joy.”

The best-known expression involving the number eight is behind the eight ball. In Kelly pool, up to 15 players may participate. They draw numbers out of a bottle to determine the order of play. Any player past eight has little chance of winning. Behind the eight ball has been generalized to mean “any difficult, troublesome situation.”

I truly hope that you’re not deep sixed and behind the eight ball but in seventh heaven and on cloud nine. On cloud nine, meaning “in a state of high euphoria,” is a reference to the 10 types of clouds defined in International Cloud Atlas, first published in 1896. Cloud nine is a cumulonimbus cloud that can rise to the lofty height of 6.2 miles, as high as a cloud can be.

Dec is the Latin root for “ten,” as in decade, decimal and decimate. To decimate once described the nasty habit of the Roman commanders of slaying one out of every 10 soldiers, selected by lot, in a mutinous legion. Nowadays decimate means “to destroy a large number of living things,” with no connection to the number 10, as in “the gypsy moth caterpillars decimated the trees in our yard.”

Clearly, the days of our English language have long been numbered, 24-7.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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