Feb. 28, 2007
“How were the numbers named?”
Gabby Clifton and Ben Baker
Mr. Kirby’s 7th Grade Science Class
Opelika Middle School
Helping Aubie this week is Dr. Robert Agne, a professor of Communication and Journalism at AU.
Dear Gabby and Ben,
This is an interesting question because we can ask a similar question of just about anything we name. How did that round, lizard-like thing with the shell on its back get to be called a "turtle?" Why did those big stealthy orange-striped creatures with sharp teeth that live in South-east Asia come to be called "tigers?" Why do we call the character (or glyph) that looks like an upright oval a "zero?" Language is a fun thing to explore, I think.
To answer your question directly, I'd have to give a little history of the name for each number, zero through ten. For instance, people who speak English say "zero" when we see the oval-shaped figure (not to be confused with the rounder shaped circle, which represents the letter "oh"). "Zero" is a name rooted in the French, Italian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, all of which have similar meanings such as "empty," "void," or "nothing." Exploring the background of names (for numbers or any other English word) is called "etymology" (pronounced "et-im-O-lo-gee").
So we could find the etymology of all the other numbers too. "One" has background in words such as "alone" and "only." You can find its Latin roots in our national motto, "E Pluribus Unum," which means "out of many, one." The other digits have their own roots - Old English, Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Sanskrit to name a few. After understanding the naming of the first eleven numbers (0-10), the rest is easy. The name for every number after ten is some combination of the first eleven. Look at the number "twenty-five," for instance. It is a linguistic combination of "two," "ten," and five." A few more names came about to help us with the bigger numbers, like "hundred," "thousand," and "million."
Naming numbers requires a little more creativity than naming other everyday things. Once we've named those fluffy white things in the sky "clouds," we're done. But we count with numbers, and we calculate with them. A different number is always just around the corner. Having the basic names, zero through ten and sets of ten (hundred, thousand, etc.) gives us building blocks to name any other number.
Thanks for your question!
Aubie and Dr. Agne
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