There are many words in English for certain numbers, oh, naught/nought, nil, couple, pair, brace, half dozen, dozen, baker's dozen, score, gross and great gross.
oh, naught/nought, nil It used to be that English did not have a number for zero. The concept was learned from the Arabs, who at the time had a more advanced understanding of mathematics. English has many words, some informal, for this amount that is one minus one. Zero is also called, oh, naught/nought, nil, or even love (as a score in tennis).
A couple, pair or brace means two. A couple are generally linked in some way, in the case of people, often by marriage. A pair is usually used for things that are identical or similar. The word brace is usually only used in UK English and can be confused with brace, a support.
A dozen is twelve of something (from the French douze , meaning twelve, or douzaine, meaning a set of twelve), but also has the forms half dozen, baker's dozen, gross and great gross. A dozen is twelve, so a half dozen is six. A gross is a dozen dozens, i.e. one hundred and forty-four. The term comes from Old French grosse douzaine meaning a large dozen. (Remember that Norman French speaking kings used to rule England and had a huge influence on the language.) A great gross is a dozen grosses, i.e. one thousand seven hundred and twenty eight (12 x 144 = 1728) .
A baker's dozen is thirteen. A dozen loaves of bread, pieces of cake, doughnuts, pastries, cookies/biscuits, pieces of hard tack or any other baked goods are thirteen. If a store advertises pieces of cake by the dozen then you should get thirteen pieces not twelve! Occasionally a baker's dozen might be called a long dozen or a big dozen. The origin of the baker's dozen was an old system of price controls on bread sold in England. Selling loaves of bread that were too small was against the law. The weights and prices of loaves of bread were controlled by royal proclamations called assizes. Bakers could be jailed, or worse, if they failed to provide the proper weight at the correct price. However a baker might accidentally sell a loaf of bread that was too light because bread does have air pockets. To avoid trouble they sold thirteen loaves of bread to the dozen ensuring that the dozen would be above the legal weight.
A score is twenty, from the Old English scoru meaning 'twenty'. However it is related to the Old Norse word skor meaning a 'mark, notch or cut'. For early English farmers the counting system really only went up to 20. It was rare to need larger numbers. So to count eighty-six sheep a farmer cut a mark on a stick of wood for every twenty sheep he counted. When he reached eighty he had four marks or scores on the stick. He added the extra sheep for a total of four score and six sheep.
There are many ways to talk about numbers and the complexities of language affect mathematics too. Some mathematicians would violently disagree, but mathematics is a subset of language. In medieval times maths problems were often solved verbally. Our extensive notations today are just icons that represent concepts, really just abbreviations.
By John Larrysson
A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.