28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVIII

Roman numerals are great for game titles, and that’s about it.

There are a few reasons I saved this one for last. First, I titled all my posts with Roman numerals knowing I would be ironically denouncing them at the end. Second, the number 28 uses more characters than the first 27, and it helps prove my point when I have to type six characters instead of two in the title. And finally, it’s been quite a month typing one entry per day on topics I can be pretty obsessed with, and I thought a lighter subject like this would be a good way to finish it off.

Roman numerals fell out of vogue several hundred years ago, replaced primarily by the Arabic numbers we use today. The advantages of Arabic numerals over Roman are many. For one, Roman numerals use only three characters to depict every number until 40 (the added character, L, means 50, but the character itself is used in the number 40), and then a new character is added only a handful of times until reaching the largest character, M, representing one thousand (although, as with L, M is used in writing 900, which is 100 less than M represents). So, writing each number from 1 to 899, a scant six characters are used, resulting in long strings of characters to express numbers often less daunting than their characters make them out to be.

Another disadvantage to Roman numerals is the inconsistency with which increasing numbers are portrayed. While our Arabic numbers get longer as the value goes up, some simple additions with Roman characters, such as 98 to 100, seem to shrink considerably in size: from XCVIII to XCIX to C. This inconsistent correlation of numbers to characters makes it difficult to judge the size of a number by its length.

Because the largest number assigned a character in the Roman numbering system is 1,000, it would be difficult to show numbers used when discussing scientific matters, such as the age of the earth, the distance from here to Neptune, or the number of molecules in a cheese sandwich. Because Roman numerals add to themselves rather than multiply, the way our current numeric system works, a row of eight Ms would equal 8,000, while a one followed by just as many zeros would equal one hundred million. This also means scientific notation, our system for representing gigantic numbers with superscript exponents, is out of the question with Roman numerals.

And on top of all that, the Roman numeral system had no zero. So while there was no way to give an accurate depiction of the size of a piece of sand, there was also no number that would describe it to be essentially nothing.

Why am I even talking about all this? Are we in danger of an uprising of this archaic numbering system? Probably not, but there are times where Roman numerals are used in the interest of artistic license, despite their awkward and inadequate ways. Probably the few most common uses still employed today are in series of movies, books and video games, as long as the series doesn’t go much further than a dozen installments, and clock faces, most notably Big Ben.

Not only are these numerals foreign enough to hinder recognition in the first place, but here they’ve been further designed into obscurity as to render the numbers completely unreadable. The V appears to be II, and the X looks like I with a small line through the middle. Clocks like this are found in many places–there was one on my living room wall when I was a kid–and most aren’t much easier to read, even close up. But since most people are familiar with the placement of these numbers without having to read them–and, as Swatch proved in the ’80s, the numbers don’t even really have to be there at all–it’s not necessary to read the numbers, just the position of the hands relative to the top of the clock. Apparently using more legible Arabic numerals, while expediting the whole point of having a clock in the first place, just wouldn’t be as beautiful.

Many video game series use Roman numerals for each sequel beyond the first release. Because the need to quickly identify a game’s place in a series based on its cover rarely becomes an ordeal, this usage presents much less of a problem than when used on clock faces. And because most game series usually come to an end before getting into the teens, large lines of Roman characters hardly overwhelm the title. One series quickly approaching that threshold is Square Enix’s most popular franchise. Final Fantasy VI is a succinct title for a video game, while Final Fantasy XVIII (scheduled for release in 2016) is going to start feeling a little number-heavy. The Super Bowl, already well beyond the point at which most people can easily identify its title (this month marked number XLIII, or 43), shows how out of hand this usage can quickly become.

The same way sans serif typefaces are typically used as display fonts, Roman numerals serve, if anywhere at all, as display numbers. Trying to parse a string of Roman characters greatly impedes legibility in a block of text, but in small doses–and in small numbers–they’re acceptable as the titles of series, and very little else. Otherwise, they come across as pretentious and self-important, further detaching the writer from the reader.


1 Response to “28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVIII”

  1. 1 Gokhan July 15, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    nice work, well done

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