Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Off on a Tangent

Four score and seven years ago . . .

If you thought this was gonna be a blog about the Gettysburg Address, you'll be disappointed, at least for a while. (I'm sure one of my blogging buddies will get there.) No, this blog is about how years were referred to in Victorian times.

In my WIP I have a reference both to "one-and-twenty" and a little later on, "thirty years". To be historically accurate, I should be saying "one score and ten" for the thirty years--but I didn't know what a score was, so how can I expect my readers to know it? Okay, maybe you're not as big a dummy as I am, and already knew a 'score' was twenty years.

But did you know why they called twenty years a score?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term arose from counting sheep, then putting a notch on a stick for each twenty. According to Wikipedia, a base 20 numbering system is called a vigesimal system, and is used in French, Dutch, and Celtic languages to name a few. There is some controversy over whether it began in Basque country and spread to the other languages, or whether it originated with the Normans and spread out that way.

All very interesting, but what I really wanted to know was when they stopped using score in reference to the passage of years. That answer I've been unable to discover, but I imagine like most words and phrases it happened over time. My quick perusal of the internet would seem to indicate it slowly fell out of fashion sometime between 1871 and 1900.

And one last question I can't find an answer to. If they used 'score' to denote twenty years--why on earth did they say 'one-and-twenty' when referring to age?? Why not 'score and one' (which I think just sounds silly, but still).

I've spent the day researching this topic and annoying my poor other bloggers. For two words in a manuscript of over 75,000, mind you. Even worse, the two words could easily be changed to "a long time" without hindering the storyline. So if you wondered why I took so long to complete the draft of my story, now you know.


Mary Ann Webber said...

Love this blog, Jenn.
This particular tangent is one of those maddening pits historical writers fall into when they try to capture the essence of the past.
Now I'll know where to go when I need to refresh my concepts of scores and other passages of time.

Christine Koehler said...


Great post on this! And isn't it always the little details we stress over?! I never knew the reason behind score, but find it interesting that there are cultures with a 20-based math rather than 10.