How To Use Roman Numerals (A Not Quite Useful Guide)


I haven’t got the chance to write a proper essay today, but did want to be sure people didn’t miss The Straight Dope this week. Cecil Adams gets the question “How did anyone do math in Roman numerals?” and does what he can to answer in a couple hundred words of newspaper space.

It’ll disappoint you if you have visions of whipping through a quadratic equation written all in V’s and L’s and stuff. Roman numeral arithmetic is really easy for addition and subtraction. Multiplication and division turn into real challenges for which you need mechanical aid and the abacus. Adams describes this loosely, although not in enough detail that you’ll come away confident with your abacus. Fair enough. I’ve got a charming little abacus myself, someone’s gift to me, and I can’t use it even to the slight extent I can use a slide rule.

The important thing, though, is that as a young know-it-all Cecil Adams’s first two books, The Straight Dope and The Return of the Straight Dope, were just magnificently important reading. Not as hefty as David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace’s The People’s Almanac 2, but with a much higher fascinating-stuff-to-boring-stuff ratio. Stuff on Oak Island’s Treasure Pit and the (former) names of New York City boroughs and the like. I’m glad it’s still there.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

2 thoughts on “How To Use Roman Numerals (A Not Quite Useful Guide)”

  1. Great post! I used to enjoy The Straight Dope when I first moved to Dallas in the 1980s. I want to say he was printed in the Dallas Observer, along with another literary titan of the time, Joe Bob Briggs (back when he just wrote spot-on movie reviews and wry observations about the local scene). But many of those brain cells from way back then are deceased, and so I could be misremembering the whole thing. Also, I still have my copy of The People’s Almanac (Roman numeral uno) that I purchased brand-spanking new back in 1975 or so. As a youth with lots of time on my hands, I read it cover to cover (all 1446 pages of it), slowing down in the more prurient parts, of course. It was an awesome book! Thanks for the trip down memory lane! Made me feel like I was XVI again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad hearing all this. I never saw The Straight Dope in newspapers, just in the book forms, tucked into the fascinating-miscellaneous books section of the library. And so read it a lot, over and over. The People’s Almanac 2 was one that my family had for some reason or other. We never had Almanac 1, and I never saw a copy. In college the newspaper office did briefly have a copy of The People’s Almanac 3 but I didn’t get the chance to absorb that nearly so well.

      Liked by 1 person

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