Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Number words

In American English, and I imagine in other languages, some numbers have meanings that might not be obvious to a foreigner. Probably the best-known of these is 911, which is what one dials on the telephone in an emergency. When interpreting "call 911" for a non-American Spanish speaker, therefore, it's far more meaningful to say "Llame a la linea de emergencia" then "Llame 911". Telephone conventions in the U.S. also give us "the 411", referring to information on someone or something, and "an 800 number" for a toll-free number (even though there are several other prefixes, such as 888, that indicate a free call). Most number words seem to be nouns, but I do have a friend who will sometimes "*69" (pronounced "star sixty-nine") someone, taking advantage of a feature available on many phones allowing one to dial the number of the last received call.

Outside the realm of telephone services, I can think of one that may not be well-known in states other than California: "420" for marijuana. For a long time I was under the common misconception that this is from the penal code section for marijuana use in the state, but this is not the case; you can read the true origins of the term here.

I was inspired to write on this subject when it occurred to me that my foreign readers might not know the meaning of "Grammar 101" in my previous post. When the name of a subject is followed by the number "101", it refers to a basic lesson in that subject. This comes from a system used by universities in which classes are named by the department followed by a number, with 101 being the introductory course. The higher the number, the more advanced the class. Interestingly, however, none of the colleges and universities I have attended actually use this system; it seems more common, at least these days, to give single-digit numbers to basic courses. Nevertheless, the term has stuck.

And though this isn't a number word per se, I have to add, on the subject of university course numbering, that I find it absolutely charming that the undergraduate quantum mechanics course at the University of California, Berkeley is Physics 137. If you don't know why, look up "fine-structure constant".


Martha said...

Ooo, yeah! And how about "404"? That's now in the Encarta Dictionary, as "an offensive term." Didn't take long, did it?

Language Lover said...

Interesting...I haven't come across "404" used that way, which is strange considering I live and work in Silicon Valley! Thanks for the comment. I'll keep my ears open for it.

Anonymous said...

I always thought 86'd was an interesting term to say you were banned from a place.

Also, at work our code to get into the door is 357, which I was told is short for a gun - 357 magnum. Although it is now easy to remember, it's really not that comforting to have a weapon as a door code to an office.

Language Lover said...

Thank you, anonymous (would that be "Officer"?). I've always heard "86" meaning "to kill", but the Urban Dictionary lists several definitions for that number. The most accepted origin for "86" meaning "to be banned" seems to be related to the address of a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Emi said...

Hello! I'm a violinist and a physics major with a penchant for languages, and I found your blog through a violinist forum.

Just wanted to say that I love reading your blog--the way you relate all of your different interests in your musings is thought-provoking and enjoyable. (It probably helps that a lot of your interests overlap with mine, of course.)

Also, the Berkeley course number is too cute!

Language Lover said...

Thanks for your comment, Emi. I'm always thrilled to meet other language lovers who find me through this blog. And we have yet one more thing in common...I'm an MIT alumna. :)