Magnitude, your rebuttal?
October 3, 2011 4:38 AM   Subscribe

When we talk about general magnitude of countable things ("I see hundreds of ads every day" or "There were thousands of people watching the parade"), why do English-speakers generally say "dozens" instead of "tens"?

Is it historically based? Phonetic similarity (two syllables) to the others? How do speakers of other languages say it?
posted by psoas to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, I say "tens" instead of "dozens". I'm a UK native english speaker.
posted by richb at 4:53 AM on October 3, 2011

Best answer: Lots of things were traditionally sold in 6 or 12 (e.g., eggs & bread (hence baker's dozen for 13)). According to Wikipedia, "The dozen may be one of the earliest primitive groupings, perhaps because there are approximately a dozen cycles of the moon or months in a cycle of the sun or year." which may explain this traditional pseduo-base-12 numbering system being used instead of the more logical base-10.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:53 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nothing concrete to back it up on, but, I would assume that it's because English speakers (primarily Americans) still use the "foot" standard of measurement which is based on units of 12 versus the metric system which is based on units of 10.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 4:53 AM on October 3, 2011

"Dozens" also just sounds better than "tens" in most sentences that are likely to be able to support either. In my experience it's more common in Australia as well, where distances are mostly metric.

Another advantage of 12 over 10 is that it has more factors than 10 (1, 2, 3, 4, 6 as opposed to just 1, 2 and 5) so it can be a lot more convenient to work with.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:03 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Tens" sounds really weird to me, personally. I tend to say 'a couple dozen' or 'a few dozen', myself.
posted by empath at 5:05 AM on October 3, 2011

I think it's also kind of because if there are 'tens' of something, you could probably just give an exact number. 'A few dozen' is what I say when it gets to be more than I can count conveniently.
posted by empath at 5:08 AM on October 3, 2011

10s is less than 100s, but dozens isn't dwarfed by something in the same category so obviously.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:09 AM on October 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

It has a cultural/historical basis - people didn't always reckon in decimal but also used informal duodecimal (base 12) and vigesimal (base 20) systems (among others). In former times 'score' meaning 20 was an often used term in English - 'scores of people' 'threescore and ten' (meaning 70). The latter can also be seen in French, where quatre-vingt (fourscore) is their word for eighty. This book has a lot more information on the subject.
posted by misteraitch at 5:15 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

No idea why it's this way but I thought I'd note the terms "gross" (a dozen dozen, or 144 of something) and "score" (twenty of something, as in Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent...) .
posted by XMLicious at 5:15 AM on October 3, 2011

And actually, the Wikipedia entry on "dozen" has some insights on the origin of its use.
posted by XMLicious at 5:19 AM on October 3, 2011

Historically things were sold in dozens (like EOI pointed out). Metric is a fairly new thing to most Americans (My Mom learned about it in school, and knows that a km is less than a mile, a meter is about a yard, etc. but doesn't use it in daily life) so we don't 'think' in tens, we think in dozens. I'm a scientist, so I use metric at work and can 'think' in both systems (well, I'm currentlly...ahem...'between jobs'...) but if I'm speaking in the vernacular, 'tens' is going to sound very strange to everybody.

( Interesting factoid I learned in my Jewish Philosophy class, apparently whatever counting system the Hebrews used likened 40 to 'dozens' and that's why that number shows up in texts a lot. When it rained for 40 days and nights, a better translation would be more like 'it rained for a whole bunch of days and nights' moreso than the specific number. Unless Rabbi Shook was lying to me, and I don't think he was. )
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:21 AM on October 3, 2011

Hundreds, Thousands, Dozens...

Two syllables each.
posted by dgeiser13 at 5:31 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing I remembered: the history-of-math stuff I've read noted that one reason that dozens and sexigesimal (60-based) systems were useful for mercantile, navigational (60 × 6 = 360 degrees in a circle) and other uses in early history is that they could easily be divided into large fractions: 12 can be split into halves, thirds, fourths, and sixths easily whereas 10 only gets you halves and fifths, and 60 gives even more options.
posted by XMLicious at 5:42 AM on October 3, 2011

When people say "tens" in American English, they're usually being sarcastic or funny: "It cost me literally tens of dollars!" "It was such a popular movie that tens of people went to see it!" (Substituting "tens" for "hundreds" or "thousands.") Which works because "tens," for whatever reason, "sounds small."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:06 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Scientists and mathematicians might refer to "tens" of something when they are working with orders of magnitude. Your question is really interesting, though, and I think I'll draw students' attention to the fact that when they say "dozens" they're using an order-of-magnitude estimate!

Also, seconding A Thousand Baited Hooks and XMLicious that the number 12 is so prevalent due to its divisibility. We inherited a base-12 time system from the Babylonians: 2*12 hours per day, and 12*5=60 minutes per hour... Isn't it convenient to be able to split an hour evenly into 2*30 minutes, 3*20 minutes, 4*15 minutes, 6*10 minutes, 12*5 minutes, etc?
posted by BrashTech at 6:36 AM on October 3, 2011

...this traditional pseudo-base-12 numbering system being used instead of the more logical base-10

Base 10 is a historical accident, and is no more "logical" than base anything-else. In fact 12 would probably have been a better choice of base than 10, simply because it has more factors and would therefore cause more numbers to be "round". The multiplication table is already commonly taught to 12x12 anyway (possibly a custom persisting from Britain before decimal currency) so there wouldn't even be an extra computational load.

But base 10, like the QWERTY keyboard, will probably persist until doomsday.
posted by flabdablet at 6:41 AM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Dozens" also just sounds better than "tens" in most sentences that are likely to be able to support either.

A Thousand Baited Hooks, almost without exception*, when a phrase "just sounds better" it's because of your own inherent biases. It's the linguistic equivalent of saying,
"This blue dress is prettier than that red dress because blue dresses are prettier than red dresses."

* An exception can be posited for onomatopoeia, for instance.

When people say "tens" in American English, they're usually being sarcastic or funny...

Eyebrows McGee, you're confusing cause and effect. "Tens" is a successful sarcastic stand-in for "dozens" because "dozens" is the expected phrase... which does nothing to answer why that is so.

Base 10 is a historical accident, and is no more "logical" than base anything-else.

flabdablet, .... You're actually claiming that base 3, base 18, and base 545 are all as "logical" as base {number-of-fingers}, which succeeded due to mere accident. Wow.

There may be "logical" reasons why base 12 would be preferable in some ways, but base 10 is a fairly straightforward result of human primate genetics.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:20 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

One instance where one does use tens is when counting thousands. "The crowd numbered in the tens of thousands." Dozens of thousands just doesn't work.

As for base 10 vs. base 12: this totally blew my mind as a kid.
posted by looli at 8:03 AM on October 3, 2011

There's no reason. It's just what people say. Read the entry in Fowler on Cast-Iron Idiom.
posted by KRS at 8:06 AM on October 3, 2011

Picking the number of fingers on two hands as the base of a positional numbering system? Sure, that's a historical accident. By the time positional numbering was invented, there were many, many more ways of numbering stuff in common use than counting them off on the fingers.

It's long seemed to me that the claim that the number of human fingers makes base 10 the "natural" choice is a bit of a Just So story. If positional numbering had spread around the world from South America rather than the Middle East, we might well have ended up with a base 12 convention.
posted by flabdablet at 8:30 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers so far. Like IAmBroom points out, it's not the relative merits of base-10 and base-12 counting--it's just that I was curious about the choice of one English word over another in this particular context.
posted by psoas at 10:15 AM on October 3, 2011

Wow - while drilling down through Wikipedia references looking for something completely different (I was trying to remember whether or not sexigesimal digits written in cuneiform used positional notation - Wikipedia's answer is yes) I came across the following from page 92 of The Dynamics of Progress: Time, Method, and Measure by Samuel L. Macey (2010):
On the subject of a measurement system based on twelve, Georges Ifrah seems more persuasive. He argues that the twelve-part numbering system, like the related sixty-part numbering system, goes back to a long-established and widely used finger-counting method. As he puts it, the “duodecimal finger-counting method used in India, Indochina, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Egypt” involves counting to twelve. One does this by using the thumb of the right hand, beginning with the outermost of the three bones at the tip of the little finger. The sexagesimal finger-counting method, still used in most of the same countries, is complementary to the duodecimal one. It uses the left hand to indicate twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight, and sixty by closing down each of the five fingers, starting with the little finger and finishing with the thumb. Understandably, Ifrah feels that the duodecimal finger-counting method may have been a factor in leading the ancient Egyptians to divide day and night each into twelve unequal or temporal hours. It may also have “led the Sumerians, and the Assyrians and Babylonians after them, to divide the cycle of day and night into twelve equal parts (called danna, each equivalent to two of four hours), to adopt for the ecliptic and the circle a division into twelve beru (30° each), and to give the number 12, as well as its divisors and multiples, a preponderant place in their various measurements.”
I'm a bit vexed to learn that my kindergarten taught me an inferior method of counting on my fingers, considering that they awarded me a diploma certifying me as a "Master of the Kinder Arts". I shall have to make a complaint.

(The surrounding pages to that quote from Macey's book discuss a number of topics regarding use of non-base-10 terminology in various languages, edifying to the OP's topic.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:30 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

One argument for "just an idiom": in French, google "des dizaines de morts" (dizaines meaning tens) — ~950,000 occurrences for me — vs. "des douzaines de morts" (douzaines meaning dozens) — less than 8,000 occurrences for me.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:58 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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