ABC, 123, ...
October 12, 2013 3:04 AM   Subscribe

What sequential counters are there, besides alphabetically and numerically?

I need to count* up to 19 three different ways. Colors (VIBGYOR) only go to seven as do Days of the Week. Months of the Year get me 12, but I need 19. The only thing I've been able to come up with is elements, but most people don't know the periodic table that well.

What other, hopefully common, sequences are there?

*By count I mean sortable into a sequential order.
posted by zinon to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on what you're using this for, there might be some options for you in the geologic time scale wikipedia page, with the different eons, eras, and periods.
posted by Mizu at 3:11 AM on October 12, 2013

Holidays in the year?
Presidents? (or whatever sequence of political rulers applies to your nation)
Body parts? (pick a starting place and go clockwise around the periphery)
Words to a popular song or nursery rhyme? (have to pick one with no repeated words in the early lines, obviously. Again, US, but The Star-Spangled Banner works for this.)
posted by Bardolph at 3:12 AM on October 12, 2013

Could also pick out a series of common animals in increasing size order (bacterium, ant, butterfly, mouse, blue jay... humpback whale)
posted by Bardolph at 3:15 AM on October 12, 2013

Could you use the numbers or letters of a different language?
posted by solarion at 3:25 AM on October 12, 2013

Yeah, my initial thought was to use Greek letters. Also, by combining letters and numbers you can get 26 categories (or an infinite number of categories with 26 elements if you prefer):

A1, A2, A3... B1, B2 etc
posted by Ned G at 3:30 AM on October 12, 2013

And how about Roman numerals?
posted by peakcomm at 3:31 AM on October 12, 2013

What other, hopefully common, sequences are there?

digits in pi, Fibonacci sequence.
posted by empath at 3:43 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lower-case letters, Roman numerals (upper or lower case) and Greek letters (lower-case) are the commonest index extensions I've seen. I wouldn't count on most people knowing the ordering of Greek letters though.

Do you need people to be able to tell which order two arbitrary elements go in ("My items are A and G; A obviously comes first") or do you just need the complete list to make sense as an ordering? Acrostics, quotations, digits of pi, sequences of historical events, the phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo etc.) or any list of related things in alphabetical order (e.g. countries or people's names) would work fine if the whole list is being presented, but not if items will be presented in isolation.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:00 AM on October 12, 2013

Do phonetic alphabet words (like "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie...") count differently from A,B,C... for your question?
posted by jozxyqk at 4:23 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you need orderings that are not alphabetical or numerical, or just need three distinct orderings?

If the latter, you could just modify the letters or numbers in some way so they can be distinguished. You could use a normal typeface combined with two of bold, italic, and underlined (or something more exotic, like blackboard bold).

Alternatively, you could add primes/apostrophes, so that you would have A,B,C...S; A',B',C'...S'; A'',B'',...S''.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 5:21 AM on October 12, 2013

You sound like the sort of person who could use a good naming scheme. For your purposes, the first 19 Presidents of the United States in chronological order might work, even if there is a bit of a learning curve.

You might also want to peruse this FPP.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:27 AM on October 12, 2013

State names, books of the bible?
posted by coldhotel at 5:45 AM on October 12, 2013

If you really mean a sequence of 19 unique things that "most people" can remember in correct order other than letters and numbers, I don't think there are any. Memorizing the alphabet is the principal intellectual chore of early childhood! Memorizing any long series at all thereafter is considered an impressive feat. In the US you might find one in 100 people who know the Presidents in order, or the books of the Bible; in a given town or city you might find 1 in 10 people who can name 19 local streets in geographic order.
posted by nicwolff at 5:46 AM on October 12, 2013

Response by poster: To clarify what I need: Imagine 3 rows of 19 bins. I want to say the name/number/element and have people be able to place them correctly. (10, J, and Neon would all go in the middle of their respective rows).

I think the Geologic Time Scale is less well known than the periodic table. The Adams' make US Presidents unwieldy (and not everyone knows them). States by Statehood Date suffer the same problems.

Since I need to be able to say them, Roman Numerals or other markups/accents won't work. And I think the Phonetic Alphabet and the Greek Alphabet would cause too much confusion with the regular Alphabet.

nicwolff, you may be right, but I'm still hopeful.

As a last resort I may end up using 3 (and ditching #'s all together) alphabetical lists of related items like animals, trees, and a third thing (I'm no good at thirds this morning).
posted by zinon at 5:57 AM on October 12, 2013

Greek alphabet?
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:00 AM on October 12, 2013

Don't overlook finger counting because of its apparent simplicity. For example 10 is just about the lowest number that you can count up to via this method. For example let Liz Katz teach you how to count up to 1024 with your fingers using finger binary (I know, try to concentrate on her hands). Or let 8 year old Randi show you to both count and add using the Korean system of Chisnabop.
posted by rongorongo at 6:01 AM on October 12, 2013

A1-A19, B1-19, C1-19?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:03 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

States by Statehood Date suffer the same problems.

What about states in alphabetical order?
posted by belladonna at 6:09 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

How about colors, on a continuum along the visible spectrum? Though you may have trouble breaking it into enough recognizeably-named colors for your needs.
posted by pla at 6:33 AM on October 12, 2013

Since this is arbitrary, why not use the days of the week and the months of the year, with the name of days coming before those of the months?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:36 AM on October 12, 2013

Yan Tan Tethera, so-called shepherd's counting language.
The systems go up to 20 so large numbers are counted in 20s.

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Mumph,
Hither, Lither, Auver, Dauver, Dic,
Yahndic, Tayndic, Tetherdic, Metherdic, Mumphit,
Yahn a mumphit, Tayn a mumphit, Tethera mumphit, Methera mumphit, Jig it.
Yan, Tan, Tethera, Pethera, Pimp
Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Dovera, Dick
Yan-a-dick, Tan-a-dick, Thethera-dick, Pethera-dick, Bumfit
Yan-a-bumfit, Tan-a-bumfit, Tethera-bumfit, Pethera-bumfit, Jiggit

Here's what wiki has to say about it.

And here's some interesting commentary from
posted by glasseyes at 6:39 AM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've remembered this counting-in rhyme for tig (= tag) 40 years, and only in writing it down did I realise it went up to 19:

 eenie meenie macka racka
 ray rye domi nacka
 hicka chocka
 lolli poppa
 rong pong push
 you are not het

There are thousands of variants, though.
posted by scruss at 6:41 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Forgot to say, Jiggit could be your signal the sequence is over, like a little jump or clap once everything is put away.

Because Yan Tan Tethera is rhythmic, it is memorable, and is still current in children's counting games. So it might be possible to adapt say, kid's skipping games into a sequence you could use to count with, and people would already be familiar with the words and the sequence so would memorise them easily.
posted by glasseyes at 6:49 AM on October 12, 2013

You are not het? A bit advanced for 40-year-old counting games?

Eggs butter sugar tea, you are not he. Can't remember what comes before that! Oh wait!

Ickle ockle black bockle, fishes in the sea, if you want a pretty maid please choose me.

Just thought though, in the American context anything referencing eenie meeny will be too loaded and thus unusable. (Brits don't have the same references AT ALL.)
posted by glasseyes at 6:53 AM on October 12, 2013

What is your local area like? If there is a train line that everyone knows, you could use the train stations in order. Or there might be a sequence of roads that everyone will recognise.

Alternatively, there are enough James Bond films to use them in order, and lots of people recognise roughly what era each comes from, if not perhaps the exact sequence.
posted by iivix at 7:04 AM on October 12, 2013

Best answer: I think your solution is different alphabetical lists. There aren't three distinct 'counting systems' like you are wanting, that are commonly known and used and that will work for your purpose, or we would have come up with them by now.

But everyone knows the alphabet, so what you need is three alphabetical lists.

So maybe the first list is famous movie stars (in alphabetical order), the second is famous authors (in alphabetical order), and the third is famous opera singers (in alphabetical order). Or cartoon characters, sitcom characters, dog names, bacteria names, popes, Roman emperors, famous sailors, famous computer scientists, cities, counties in your state, famous physicists, names of trees, names of rivers, names of countries, names of states (but in alphabetical order), or whatever fits the context of your project.

But whatever they are, the topic name tells you which row they are in and the order of the alphabet tells you which spot within the row. "Mickey, Lassie, E Coli," for example.

Since you have 26 letters and need only 19, you could skip a few (like if there is no president starting with Q, just skip that) as long as you could come up with 19 distinct letters for that topic. I suppose you could go for deep alphabetication, but for the sanity of everyone using the system you'd probably be better off sticking with options that have just one word per letter and skipping options that require them to distinguish between various options for one starting letter, like Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana etc. Even though that still technically works it might drive everyone crazy. Ideally all the Ks, Ns, and Rs in each of the three rows would line up vertically, since that will help with locating the bins. So one word per letter and if one row skips a letter (Q) then then they all skip it.

Having just one overall scheme will help quite a bit, I believe. Even if you know the periodic table and the order of the presidents and the date of admission to the union of all the states by heart, figuring out quickly the location of Lead, Roosevelt, Kentucky within those three schemes is quite an exercise in fast context switching.

Whereas locating Lead, Roosevelt, and Kentucky where all three are in terms of alphabetized lists of other similar terms is quite simple for most everyone.
posted by flug at 7:06 AM on October 12, 2013

If identifying them is the only point, I think the easiest solution is hotel numbering or Cartesian numbering. Bins 100-119, 200-219, 300-319; or bins a0-a19, b0-b19, and c0-c19.
posted by anaelith at 7:50 AM on October 12, 2013

Best answer: So you want to be able to say a word and have people translate it mentally into an index, in order to pick the right slot? A lot of people are going to find that tricky even with letters of the alphabet, if they don't have a lookup table to use. I actually had a conversation with colleagues about this recently, and it turns out a lot of people don't have many or even any reference points in the alphabet. Some people are going to be counting from A each time.

I'd still go with alphabetical lists, if you want something more interesting than map-style coordinates (A1 etc.) - preferably lists whose contents are so different that nobody will confuse them. (Is "Adams" a president or an author or a musician?) That said, turns out it's difficult to come up with themed lists with well-known items for every letter A-S - but if you skip some or all of the tricky letters, you'll make it even harder for people to do the conversion to a numerical index. Which box does Pterodactyl go in if you missed out dinosaurs for F and J? So I think you might need to provide people with the lists to refer to - either so they can work out the index, or so that they can work out which row an unfamiliar word is from. Or both.

First names, countries of the world, and birds all turn out to be pretty easy to find A-S values for, incidentally; animals, trees and fruits are harder, and I don't seriously recommend dinosaurs, not least from a pronunciation standpoint.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:55 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

See this previous AskMe on alphabetic naming lists.
posted by Ery at 8:16 AM on October 12, 2013

Here is Jake Thackray singing Molly Metcalfe. At the beginning of the clip he counts through Yan Tan Tethera several times.
posted by glasseyes at 8:50 AM on October 12, 2013

How about one of the phonetic alphabets used by the military (able / baker / charlie etc)? There are several variants, the nice thing is that people will know the order.

Several cities have street names coded to the alphabet (though I'll be damned if I can find an A-Z list without crawling over a map).
posted by mr vino at 9:02 AM on October 12, 2013

How about the iroha?
It is famous because it is a perfect pangram (and in the same time an isogram), containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once. Because of this, it is also used as an ordering for the syllabary, in much the same way that the A, B, C, D... sequence traces its origin back to the Phoenician alphabet and its Semitic predecessors.
いろはにほへと ちりぬるを わかよたれそ つねならむ
i ro ha ni ho he to chi ri nu ru wo wa ka yo ta re so tsu ne na ra mu

Bonus, they get to learn a poem!
posted by zengargoyle at 10:30 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the sticking points are that people using the system need to understand and know all the elements (which is why US presidents don't work well), as well as that people need some kind of intuitive sense of where they are in the order when they hear a single point.

Does that sound right?

If that's the case, I recommend using numbers, letters, and circle degrees (or radians), where you range from 0° to 360° in increments of 15°. People will have a sense of where they are in the order right away (180° being exactly in the middle), and it requires no extra memorization.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:42 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you use 19 Presidents if instead of choosing the first 19, you picked 19 well known Presidents and relied upon people to know the correct sequential order? You could weigh heavily toward post WWII Presidents.

Here's 19: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosvelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 10:43 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Monarchs of England?

Books of the Bible?

power prefixes - (atto- femto- pico- ... there are 20)

Different alphabetical lists (instead of ABC, the pilots call Alpha Bravo Charlie, and a flower alphabet Azalea Bluebell Clematis, and an animal alphabet Ant Beetle Cricket and...)
posted by aimedwander at 9:01 PM on October 12, 2013

Have there been 19 Star Trek movies yet? Or James Bond films maybe?
posted by hishtafel at 10:55 PM on October 12, 2013

Since I need to be able to say them, Roman Numerals or other markups/accents won't work.

Uppercase A, lowercase a, Arabic numeral 1, Roman numeral I.
posted by Gordafarin at 2:34 AM on October 13, 2013

Have there been 19 Star Trek movies yet? Or James Bond films maybe?

No and yes, respectively.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:00 AM on October 13, 2013

« Older Dealing with disappointing friends.   |   Motion stabilization in After Effects? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.