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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The word "number" has Anglo-Norman, Old French and Middle French roots, originating as early as the 12th century. Countless variations of the spelling of the word have existed in the past thousand years between these languages. The word originates from classical Latin numerus which means sum or quantity[1]

The word "number" can act as both a noun and a verb. The most common definition of the word "number" is the sum of a collection of individual things. This definition  gives a subject a quantitative value. This definition dates back to the 14th century."Number" can also refer to something of mathematical value. In arithmetic you calculate with "numbers", which each represent a unique mathematical value. The verb "number" also has many possible definitions. It can means to count or enumerate, which applies to the first definition of the noun "number", or it can mean to calculate, which applies to the second definition of the noun "number". These verbs tend to originate a couple centuries after the appearance of the noun.

"Number" is also commonly used to describe a symbol representing a quantity. The symbol "3", for example, is a number representing with the quantitative sum of three. Theoretically, there are an infinite amount of possible numbers, all with different values, but all represented using the same ten symbols (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0). This creates a paradox within the definition, because
"infinity" is not a number, despite the term infinity being applicable to both definitions previously mentioned.

This brings me to my favourite definition of the word "number". The definition I'm most interested in is the one used in the phrase "days are numbered". In this situation the word number is used as a verb describing the reduction of something, in this case time, to a definite sum. It is rationalizing something and giving it a quantitative quality. This variation of the word was first used in 1535 in a translation of Psalms lxxxix: "O teach vs to nombre oure dayes, that we maye applie our hertes vnto wyszdome.". In a literal sense this phrase describes the act of expending time. The use of the word in this context is very interesting to me because it defines the limits of a value. In this case that would refer to someone's life becoming a set sum, making the person concerned mortal. Going back to the idea of infinity, this definition eliminates the idea of infinity and gives something a tangible value. In some ways it makes the subject real. The paradox of the­­ word "number" therefore repeats itself, as it can describe a tangible sum, it can describe an infinite amount of sums and it can make something of infinite or vague value real.

[1] "number, n.". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://oed.com/view/Entry/129082?rskey=iAwhU9&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed November 21, 2012).

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