When In Rome

The lady called to find out if her book…no. Let’s say it straight out. The lady called me so I could tell her the book she had was worth enough money that she could give up scratch-off lottery tickets.

“It’s really old,” she told me. “It’s from my grandparents’ house. It’s a really cool atlas, with the old names for countries and some that aren’t there any more. But it doesn’t have a date anywhere. Rand McNally published it, but didn’t put a date on it.”

There were several directions I could go from here. The first thing I look for when somebody gives me a globe, for example, is how many Germanys it has on it. Once upon a time, if there was only one, it was a good, old globe. Nowadays, I have to look at other things to be sure.

But I have done work with atlases and with Rand McNally publications. “Sometimes, in an atlas, the date is on the last page of text instead of the front,” I said.

“I checked that. I found the copyright notice and everything, but no date.”

This was peculiar, but I can find more peculiar things about books than that without stepping far from the phone. “It just says ‘Copyright Rand McNally’?”

“That’s all,” she said. “And then there’s a bunch of letters.”

“Interesting. What letters?”

“MCM,” she spelled for me, “LXXVI.”

“Ah!” was all I said for a moment. I was trying to think of a nice way to tell her to hang onto that lucky penny for scratching lottery tickets.

YOU understand, I know. But in case you want to clip this for any of your friends who also were abandoned as children and home schooled by the nest of crows which took them in, let us just briefly summarize Roman Numerals.

A lot of publishers like to use Roman numerals, and so, I have noticed, do a number of television programs. (Yeah, sometimes I read the copyright notices at the end of the credits. Like you’re spending your time more usefully texting your friends while buffing your toenails.) What causes some people to pick Roman numerals for copyright dates: does it look classier or do they hope people won’t figure out it’s a rerun?

The Romans did not send text messages, so they used a system of numbers that takes up more space than ours. I is the numeral for 1, which seems logical. The numeral for 2 was II, and 3 was III. You see what the problem is, but the Romans didn’t. They also had to wait for us to invent Pig Latin.

The symbol for 5 was V. You made a 4 by writing IV (five minus one) and 6 with a VI (five PLUS one.) You could be less elegant by writing 4 as IIII, but the pros didn’t. (Some clockmakers do it to this day.) X was 10, L was 50, C was 100, D was 500, and M was 1000. 999 could be made by writing DCCCCLXXXXVIIII (500 plus four 100s plus 50 plus four 10s plus 5 plus four 1s) or DID (500 plus 500 minus 1) or just IM (1000 minus 1). There are more rules than that but I’m getting dizzy. The math score on my SATs is not what got me those scholarships.

So that aged atlas dated MCMLXXVI was published in 1976, which is a long time ago only for those of you who put Britney Spears in Classic Rock.

Learning your Roman numerals can help keep your hopes from rising when you pick up something similarly archaic. It can also provide hours of harmless fun. You can ask people what character in The Sword In the Stone had the same name as a YEAR. (Mad Madame Mim, of course. MIM, see, is…oh, go find your own harmless fun, then. I hope you get toenail crumbs in your keyboard.)

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