Robert Benchley: When Not In Rome, Why Do As The Romans Did?


Rome’s city council has decided to phase out the use of Roman numerals on street signs, official documents, identity cards, and the like. This is being done to standardize and simplify the numerical system in use. This brings a neat bit of timeliness to this Robert Benchley essay collected in Love Conquers All.

WHEN NOT IN ROME, WHY DO AS THE ROMANS DID?

There is a growing sentiment among sign painters that when a sign or notice is to be put up in a public place it should be written in characters that are at least legible, so that, to quote The Manchester Guardian (as every one seems to do) “He who runs may read.”

This does not strike one as being an unseemly pandering to popular favor. The supposition is that the sign is put there to be read, otherwise it would have been turned over to an inmate of the Odd Fellows Home to be engraved on the head of a pin. And what could be a more fair requirement than that it should be readable?

Advertising, with its billboard message of rustless screens and co-educational turkish-baths, has done much to further the good cause, and a glance through the files of newspapers of seventy-five years ago, when the big news story of the day was played up in diamond type easily deciphered in a strong light with the naked eye, shows that news printing has not, to use a slang phrase, stood still.

But in the midst of this uniform progress we find a stagnant spot. Surrounded by legends that are patent and easy to read and understand, we find the stone-cutter and the architect still putting up tablets and cornerstones, monuments and cornices, with dates disguised in Roman numerals. It is as if it were a game, in which they were saying, “The number we are thinking of is even; it begins with M; it has five digits and when they are spread out, end to end, they occupy three feet of space. You have until we count to one hundred to guess what it is.”

Roman numerals are all right for a rainy Sunday afternoon or to take a convalescent’s mind from his illness, but to put them in a public place, where the reader stands a good chance of being run over by a dray if he spends more than fifty seconds in their perusal, is not in keeping with the efficiency of the age. If for no other reason than the extra space they take, involving more marble, more of the cutter’s time and wear and tear on his instruments, not to mention the big overhead, you would think that Roman numerals would have been abolished long ago.

Of course, they can be figured out if you’re good at that sort of thing. By working on your cuff and backs of envelopes, you can translate them in no time at all compared to the time taken by a cocoon to change into a butterfly, for instance. All you have to do is remember that “M” stands for either “millium,” meaning thousand, or for “million.” By referring to the context you can tell which is more probable. If, for example, it is a date, you can tell right away that it doesn’t mean “million,” for there isn’t any “million” in our dates. And there is one-seventh or eighth of your number deciphered already. Then “C,” of course, stands for “centum,” which you can translate by working backwards at it, taking such a word as “century” or “per cent,” and looking up what they come from, and there you have it! By this time it is hardly the middle of the afternoon, and all you have before you is a combination of X’s, I’s and an L, the latter standing for “Elevated Railway,” and “Licorice,” or, if you cross it with two little horizontal lines, it stands for the English pound, which is equivalent to about four dollars and eighty-odd cents in real money. Simple as sawing through a log.

But it takes time. That’s the big trouble with it. You can’t do the right thing by the office and go in for Roman numerals, too. And since most of the people who pass such inscriptions are dependent on their own earnings, why not cater to them a bit and let them in on the secret?

Probably the only reason that the people haven’t risen up and demanded a reform along these lines is because so few of them really give a hang what the inscription says. If the American Antiquarian Turn-Verein doesn’t care about stating in understandable figures the date on which the cornerstone of their building was laid, the average citizen is perfectly willing to let the matter drop right there.

But it would never do to revert to Roman numerals in, say, the arrangement of time-tables. How long would the commuter stand it if he had to mumble to himself for twenty minutes and use up the margins of his newspaper before he could figure out what was the next train after the 5:18? Or this, over the telephone between wife and husband:

“Hello, dear! I think I’ll come in town for lunch. What trains can I get?”

“Just a minute—I’ll look them up. Hold the wire…. Let’s see, here’s one at XII:LVIII, that’s twelve, and L is a thousand and V is five and three I’s are three; that makes 12:one thousand…. that can’t be right…. now XII certainly is twelve, and L … what does L stand for?… I say; what—does—L—stand—for?… Well, ask Heima…. What does she say?… Fifty?… Sure, that makes it come out all right…. 12:58…. What time is it now?… 1 o’clock?… Well, the next one leaves Oakam at I:XLIV…. that’s …” etc.

Batting averages and the standing of teams in the leagues are another department where the introduction of Roman numerals would be suicide for the political party in power at the time. For of all things that are essential to the day’s work of the voter, an early enlightenment in the matter of the home team’s standing and the numerical progress of the favorite batsman are of primary importance. This information has to be gleaned on the way to work in the morning, and, except for those who come in to work each day from North Philadelphia or the Croton Reservoir, it would be a physical impossibility to figure the tables out and get any of the day’s news besides.

CLVB BATTING RECORDS

Games At Bat Runs B.H. S.B. S.H. Aver.
Detroit CLII MMMMMXXCIX DCLIII MCCCXXXIII CLXVIII CC CCLXII
Chicago CLI MMMMCMXL DLXXI MCCXLVI CLXXIX CCXXI CCLII
Cleveland CLII MMMMCMXXXVII DCXIX MCCXXXI CL CCXXI CCXLIX
Boston CLI MMMMDCCCLXXIV DXXXIV MCXCI CXXXVI CCXXV CCXLV
New York CL MMMMCMLXXXVII DLIV MCCXXX CLXXV CLXV CXLVII
Washington CLIII MMMMCMXXVIII DV MCXC CLXIII CLXV CCXDI
St. Louis CLV MMMMMLXV DLXXIV MCCXXI CCVII CLXII CCXLI
Philadelphia CXLIX MMMMDCCCXXVI CCCCXVI MCXLIII CXLIII CLV CCXXXVII
YOU CAN’T DO RIGHT BY THE OFFICE AND GO IN FOR ROMAN NUMERALS TOO.

On matters such as these the proletariat would have protested the Roman numeral long ago. If they are willing to let its reactionary use on tablets and monuments stand it is because of their indifference to influences which do not directly affect their pocketbooks. But if it could be put up to them in a powerful cartoon, showing the Architect and the Stone-Cutter dressed in frock coats and silk hats, with their pockets full of money, stepping on the Common People so that he cannot see what is written on the tablet behind them, then perhaps the public would realize how they are being imposed on.

For that there is an organized movement among architects and stone-cutters to keep these things from the citizenry there can no longer be any doubt. It is not only a matter of the Roman numerals. How about the use of the “V” when “U” should be used? You will always see it in inscriptions. “SVMNER BVILDING” is one of the least offensive. Perhaps the excuse is that “V” is more adapted to stone-lettering. Then why not carry this principle out further? Why not use the letter H when S is meant? Or substitute K for B? If the idea is to deceive, and to make it easier for the stone-cutter, a pleasing effect could be got from the inscription, “Erected in 1897 by the Society of Arts and Grafts”, by making it read: “EKEATEW IZ MXIXLXIXLXXII LY THE XNLIEZY OF AEXA ZNL ELAFTX.” There you have letters that are all adapted to stone-cutting; they look well together, and they are, in toto, as intelligible as most inscriptions.


(I drew this from an online source. I haven’t had the energy to track down the original book and see whether that shouldn’t be the Society of Arts and Crafts instead, although I like the G construction. It might not be a joke Benchley meant to make, is all.)

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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.

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