A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What is the proper way to style Roman numerals for the 1990s?

February 23, 1990

Dear Cecil:

This is important! What are the Roman numerals for 1990? Possible solutions: (1) MXM, (2) MCMXC, or the cumbersome (3) MDCCCCLXXXX. Help!

Dear Anonymous:

This IS urgent. For the better part of a decade now sweaty movie moguls have wrestled with a desperate riddle: how the hell do we style the date at the end of the credits? Well, much as I'd like to cash in selling Roman-numeral consulting services to Hollywood, this time you guys are on your own. There is not now nor has there ever been any universally accepted method of styling Roman numerals. For that matter, it's only been in the last few hundred years that there's been any general agreement on what symbols stand for which quantities.

In school, for instance, you may have learned that the Romans used M for 1,000 because it stood for the Latin mille, thousand. Wrong on two counts: many authorities think it's only coincidence that the number M happened to look like the letter M (ditto for C = 100--it's unlikely C stood for centum, hundred). In any case, as often as not, the Romans indicated 1,000 not with M but either the lazy-8 infinity symbol or else something along the lines of (I)--that is, a vertical stroke framed by exaggerated parentheses.

Grade school teachers often tell their students that the Romans adopted the so-called subtractive principle, i.e., IV = 5-1 = 4, in order to save themselves the trouble of chiseling extra strokes in the stone. But it turns out the subtractive system was used only sporadically by the ancient Romans and their medieval successors and never in a systematic way. Comb through old documents and inscriptions and you'll find such erratic usages as LXL, 90; XXCIII, 83; LXXIIX, 78; and even IIIIX, 6. A popular German arithmetic textbook published in 1524 gives 99 as XCIX, but even today you'll find some people who'll hold out for IC.

So where does this leave us? Well, if we are truly desperate for moral guidance, we may turn to the world of computers. Cecil happens to have a desktop publishing program known as Xerox Ventura Publisher, an amazing bit of software that I believe was used originally to torture heretics during the Inquisition  Among other things it will convert numbers up to 9,999 into Roman numerals for use as page numbers.

Punching in 1990, we come up with MCMXC, an unsurprising and somehow comforting result. But if we then try 1999, we get MIM. Why MIM for 1999 and not MXM for 1990? Lord knows. Worse, if we enter 9,999 we get what appears to be IZ. I have scoured my reference books in vain for any indication that Z was ever used for 10,000, which moves me to write the whole thing off as the product of malicious computer geekery, an impression that actually trying to use Ventura will certainly strengthen.

No doubt all this numerological uncertainty is distressing. But look on the bright side: it also gives us a strange and terrible freedom. You can use any damn notation for 1990 you want to, and no one will be able to say you're wrong. It may not give you the same rush as dancing on the Berlin Wall, but in post-Reagan America you make do with what you get.

THE ROMAN NUMERAL DILEMMA: FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS

Dear Cecil:

Just to continue the investigation of what word processor algorithms do with Roman numerals, I put Microsoft Word to the test.

1990: MCMXC, as with Ventura

1999: MCMXCIX rather than Ventura's MIM--clumsy but methodical

9999 and other big numbers: interestingly, it substitutes a question mark for the hypothetical 5,000 and 10,000 symbols. Clever, no? --Peter Norton (yes, THAT Peter Norton), Santa Monica, California

Cecil replies:

Peter, what we need is a good utility to get this mess cleaned up.

You prove my point--there is no universally accepted method for writing Roman numerals. Judging from TV shows I've seen, the broadcast industry has settled on the conservative MCMXC as the basic style for the 1990s. But what the hell, some fearless iconoclast may yet go for broke with MXM.

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