Numbers: one word, lots of meanings

Hello guys!

This week we will have a look at the big, big world of numbers… I know that you’ll probably think: “Numbers… Oh! It’s sooo boring!” or “I’ve had enough of numbers! I hate them!” (and I agree with you), but I can assure you that it will be like browsing some pages of an imaginary photo album to see how numbers have changed in different times and places and how they are now. So… come on!

Let’s start analyzing the first definition the dictionary gives us:

“Number: 1) It’s an abstract entity which is used to identify a quantity or the position of something in a series. numbers are defined with figures, according to a numbering system”.

Well, this is the classical definition that we associate to numbers, in fact, at school and in our daily life, we use them for counting and measuring. If we step back in time, however, we can see that our protagonist, the number, has a very interesting story, from its birth up to now.

We all know that in the ancient times numbers didn’t exist, so the primitive man used to count his cattle with fingers and toes or, when these weren’t enough, with pebbles, nodes or cuts on sticks or tree trunks. They also used to cut animal bones with quartz. A famous relic found in Ishango, between Uganda and Congo, are “The Ishango Bones”, that are fibulas of baboons with some notches on them, probably used to count by a man that lived between 20.000 and 18.000 B.C.


from Wiki Commons

Later, populations of  Mesopotamia and Northern Africa, the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians invented numbering systems using wedge-shaped cuts on clay tablets, while the Greeks used alphabet letters as numbers. Today we don’t count in this way: in fact, the numbers we use were invented by the Indians during the third century B.C. and were adopted by the Arabs between the seventh and eighth century A.D.

Moreover, Indians introduced the zero to give a specific value to each number according to its place.

But… How did this numbering system arrive in Europe?

Well, an Italian mathematician, Leonardo from Pisa, called “Fibonacci” (from the Latin “filius Bonacci” = “Bonacci’s son”) learned this system from some Arabic traders with whom he made some exchanges while he was in Algeria with his father, who was a merchant. When he returned to Italy he wrote a book, the “Liber abaci”, where he illustrated this new method, unknown until then, that immediately spread throughout Europe. That’s why we use today these ten figures for our counting:

0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9

Now, after this little journey into the past, we can look up in the dictionary page to find some other meaning for the word “number”…

This word can also show a sum, a count or an total of a collection of units: in fact we say “a number of people” to mean an indefinite quantity of people.

In poetry, numbers are the metrical feet, i.e. the units of measurements; while in music they refer to groups of notes, musical periods or tunes or arrangements to sing or dance.

A number is also a part of a musical work or simply its rhythm.

Instead, during a show, the numbers made by the artists are their performances on the stage like a song, a dance or a theatrical representation.

Furthermore, in the world or writing a number is a single part of a book published in a series of parts or an issue of a periodical, like a magazine.

In grammar there are the singular and plural numbers, that indicate whether a word has one or more than one referent.

Finally, in science we have:

– the atomic number, that refers to the number of protons contained in an atomic nucleus

– the Avogadro’s number, that is the number of particles (like atoms, molecules and ions) contained in one mole

– the oxidation number, that indicates the number of electrons transferred or acquired by a chemical element during the formation of a compound

Do you know other meanings for the word “number”? Are there any differences in the use of this word in Italian?


One thought on “Numbers: one word, lots of meanings

  1. Wow! How many meanings can a little word such as “number” hide in itself, which we don’t pay attention to when we talk or write! I think that this world will always be surrounded by mystery…and this makes me sometimes shiver 🙂

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