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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