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The Straight Dope


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This is important! What are the Roman numerals for 1990? Possible solutions: (1) MXM, (2) MCMXC, or the cumbersome (3) MDCCCCLXXXX. Help! --Anonymous, Chicago

By God, this is urgent. Even now sweaty movie moguls are undoubtedly wondering: what the hell are we going to do about the date at the end of the credits? Well, much as I'd like to cash in selling Roman-numeral consulting services to Hollywood, this time you guys are on your own. There is not now nor has there ever been any universally accepted method of styling Roman numerals. For that matter, it's only been in the last few hundred years that there's been any general agreement on what symbols stand for which quantities.

In school, for instance, you may have learned that the Romans used M for 1,000 because it stood for the Latin mille, thousand. Wrong on two counts: many authorities think it's only coincidence that the number M happened to look like the letter M (ditto for C = 100--it's unlikely C stood for centum, hundred). In any case, as often as not, the Romans indicated 1,000 not with M but either the lazy-8 infinity symbol or else something along the lines of (I)--that is, a vertical stroke framed by exaggerated parentheses.

The so-called subtractive principle, i.e., that IV = 5 = 1 - 4, was used only sporadically by the ancient Romans and their medieval successors and never in a systematic way. Comb through old documents and inscriptions and you'll find such whimsical usages as LXL, 90; XXCIII, 83; LXXIIX, 78; and even IIIIX, 6. A popular German arithmetic textbook published in 1524 gives 99 as XCIX, but even today you'll find some people who'll hold out for IC.

So where does this leave us? Well, if we are truly desperate for moral guidance, we may turn to the world of computers. Cecil happens to have a desktop publishing program known as Xerox Ventura Publisher, an amazing bit of software thought to have been used originally to torture heretics during the Inquisition. Among other things it will convert numbers up to 9,999 into Roman numerals for use as page numbers. Punching in 1990, we come up with MCMXC, an unsurprising and somehow comforting result. But if we then try 1999, we get MIM. Why MIM for 1999 and not MXM for 1990? Lord knows. Worse, if we enter 9,999 we get what appears to be IZ. I have scoured my reference books in vain for any indication that Z was ever used for 10,000, which moves me to write the whole thing off as the product of malicious computer geekery, an impression that actually trying to use Ventura will certainly confirm.

No doubt all this numerological uncertainty is distressing. But look on the bright side: it also gives us a strange and terrible freedom. You can use any damn notation for 1990 you want to, and no one will be able to say you're wrong. It may not give you the same rush as dancing on the Berlin Wall, but in post-Reagan America you make do with what you get.


Your account of the origin of the Nazi slogan "Thousand Year Reich" [December 15] was not quite accurate. [Cecil said Hitler first used it after the Roehm purge of June 1934 to assure people that the future would be a lot more stable than the immediate past had been.] At the Nazi party congress on September 4, 1932, Hitler's proclamation was read aloud by Gauleiter Adolf Wagner of Bavaria. It began, "the German form of life is definitely determined for the next thousand years." Hitler repeated the boast when the Third Reich was established on January 30, 1933, and his regime was often referred to as the Thousand-Year Reich afterward. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, pages 5 and 230. --Ray Wilding-White, Oak Park, Illinois

You've misread Shirer's book. The proclamation you refer to wasn't read September 4, 1932, it was September 5, 1934. See Shirer, page 1145, note 9.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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