Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Come in Number 6, Your Time is Up. Are You in Trouble, Number 9?

I've been thinking about numbers today - probably because I've been picking orders all day long, and have had to think about a lot of quantities of a lot of different products. For one of our customers, I write a packing list which is attached to the delivery note. The packing list details every item on every layer of every pallet. I hand write it as I pick the order, and then type it up and send it with the delivery note. It can be a bit of a pain to do, but it has totally eliminated notices of shortages or overages on deliveries.
So anyway, because I have had numbers running through my mind all day, I started to think about how we use them, and how we use words for numbers. If that sounds a bit vague, let me explain.

We all know that the number 1 is written as One, and either can be used to describe a single thing (pretty much anything in existence). Following on from that, the number 2 is written as Two, but we often also say 'a couple' - as in "a couple of pints". On top of this the word "couple" is used to describe two people, usually in a relationship, as they are two individual people. Next in line is the number 3; this is where the system gets a bit vague. The only other words for 3 of anything are "Trio", and "Hat-Trick" (to the best of my knowledge) - unless you count the word "few", as in "we had a few games of pool".

Now this is where it starts to really tick along nicely - I apologise if I stop making sense.

Is the word "few" used only to describe 3 of something, or could it be used to describe 4? If you asked me (and let's assume you are) I would have said that the word people think of to describe 4 of something is "some", because it doesn't imply a large number, but at the same time would not be used for a small number - you would use "a few", or "a couple".
I wouldn't use the word "some" to describe 5 people. I would use the word "group" - mainly because in the musical sense of the word, a group is quite often five people (Boyzone, Take That, Westlife etc.) I know that there are hundreds of musical acts with 2, 3, or 4 members and that they are called a Group - but I'm just trying to reason things out in my head. So 5 is a group - but is it also a bunch? Another expression for punching someone is to give them "a bunch of fives", as there are five digits on your hand - unless you are the baddie in Peter Pan, in which case you give them a left hook.
Diverting slightly, you also give a bunch of flowers - but there isn't just five flowers in a bunch is there? There are lots of flowers, so a bunch could mean more than five. Also, at what point does a bunch become a bouquet? A bouquet of flowers is bigger than a bunch just going by the image the name suggests, but where is the cut off point? In terms of the number of flowers used, does just one extra make a bunch a bouquet, and vice versa?
And why do we not use the word "Bouquet" to describe a number larger than  a "bunch"? why do we not say "I was trying to sleep last night, but this bouquet of idiots in their cars decided to race up and down the street all night". We don't use it, because it doesn't suit the use in this case.

Stop answering your own questions, Larry.

So what comes next in terms of describing a quantity? I suppose after a "bunch" there is "lots" or "loads". The word "Loads" probably goes back to perhaps Victorian or Edwardian times when the amount of goods or commodity you could get onto a cart or wagon would have been called "one load". I'm purely speculating here, I don't know this for a fact. If someone said to you "Loads of us went up London", apart from balking at the appalling grammar, you would assume that quite a large number was involved - maybe 10 plus. I think "loads" is where the word association ends, as it can be used to describe anything between 10 and a hundred. After that the system kicks in with "Hundreds" used for 100 - 999, "Thousands" for 1000 upwards, and so on. Some might say that people use words like "masses" or "tons" to describe a quantity larger than 10 but less than 100, but I think that is more of a regional variation. From East Anglia to the North east, and as far west as Devon and Cornwall, each area has it's own "local" words or phrases.

I have no answers, only questions. It just struck me as curious as how the words we use to describe quantity (other than the written versions of numbers) are open to interpretation.

Numbers can be used to describe yourself differently. I have just turned 40 years old - but I tell people I'm only 480 months old. Although it's a bigger number, combining it with a relatively short space of time in the grand scheme of things like a month, plus the fact that we associate ages in months with infants and very young children, doesn't make it sound so bad.

The flip side of that is now that I have turned 40, I'll probably only see another 10 World Cups in my life. And England won't win any of them.

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