Letters: Plastic Bags, Roman Numerals

Comments from listeners include response to a story about a proposal to ban plastic bags at San Francisco grocery stores; a call for a recount on the number of construction cranes in Dubai; clarifications about a Utah audit of suspected voter fraud a drug cited in a story on medical marijuana; and some advice about how to pronounce Roman numerals.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's time now for your comments.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Plastic or paper? How about neither? That was the response several of you had to our story about San Francisco wanting to ban plastic bags at grocery stores to help the environment. Listener Liz Paul(ph) writes: I have four canvas grocery bags that I purchased 25 years ago and they work just fine. When will American consumers and merchants start thinking a wee bit outside the box? Or maybe she means outside the bag.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Carol Oartree(ph) of Galesburg, Illinois, heard the story while driving home from work and just then, she writes, a bag flew in front of my van. It started me counting the bags caught in the fences and weeds along the road. In the time it took to listen to the story, I counted 36 bags.

INSKEEP: Now let's do a recount of the number of construction cranes in the city of Dubai. During an interview about Halliburton moving it's CEO to Dubai, we heard that city is growing so rapidly that it has 20 percent of the world's cranes.

MONTAGNE: But don't believe it says Seth Wanger(ph) of Athens, Georgia. He writes an article in the Engineering News Record investigates this urban legend and interviews a tower crane manufacturer who estimates that Dubai has, at most, one to two percent of the world's cranes, which, he adds, is still impressive.

INSKEEP: Some clarifications this morning. We heard the story on voter fraud and in it a congressman said an audit in Utah found that 14 non-citizens had voted in that state.

MONTAGNE: The audit actually says that the 14 appeared to be non-citizens. It's not known for sure what their status was.

INSKEEP: In a report on medical marijuana we referred to a drug called Marinol as the legalized pill form of pot. But to be clear, Marinol contains no actual marijuana. It does contain a synthetic form of THC, which occurs naturally in pot.

MONTAGNE: And a correction. In a story yesterday, we identified Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed as a former Marine. He is a former Army Ranger.

INSKEEP: And now for a little drunken celebration.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) XCI bottles of wine on the wall. XCI bottles of wines.

MONTAGNE: To honor the Ides of March, this is how reporter Robert Krulwich imagined that Roman senators would celebrate the death of Julius Caesar. It's a drinking song we all know, but they were Romans so they used Roman numerals.

Unidentified Group: XCI bottles of wine...

INSKEEP: Many of you thought the song was ridiculous, others loved it. Surely some thought it was ridiculous and loved it anyway, and at least one Latin teacher wrote to say the ancient Romans did have real names for their numbers that were not based on the cumbersome of Roman numerals.

They have proper words like the number is, well it depends on how you want to pronounce it, but decem or daychem(ph) or daysam(ph)? Let's find out how the ancient Romans would have counted by 10 by going to our best source, NPR Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: According to the classical Latin, what the ancient Romans spoke, the Roman numerals are decem, viginti, triginta, quadraginta, quinquaginta, sexaginta, septuaginta, octaginta, nonaginta and centum.

INSKEEP: Wait, wait, wait, this gets even better.

POGGIOLI: For these pronunciations, I consulted Father Reginald Foster, the pope's principal Latinist.

INSKEEP: The principal Latinist of the pope is now your source for how to properly say the numbers in a drinking song.

MONTAGNE: And we're about to come full circle, because yesterday was the Ides of March and there in Rome Sylvia Poggioli happened to record this song of praise to Caesar.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: We don't know who the singers are but we can't help noticing they sound remarkably like the revelers in Robert Krulwich's skit. We revel in your comments everyday. Please write to us by going to npr.org and clicking Contact Us.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

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Ides of March After-Party: Roman Drinking Songs?

Painting of the assassination of Roman dictator Julius Caesar, 15th March 44 B.C. i i

An 18th-century painting depicts the assassination of Roman dictator Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C. Today, the question remains: How did the senators celebrate? Roche-Grosse/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Roche-Grosse/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Painting of the assassination of Roman dictator Julius Caesar, 15th March 44 B.C.

An 18th-century painting depicts the assassination of Roman dictator Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C. Today, the question remains: How did the senators celebrate?

Roche-Grosse/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 15, 44 B.C. Julius Caesar was murdered by a posse of Roman senators. Today, on the anniversary of the historic murder, we imagine the sort of after-party the killers might have thrown.

What If...

This is a "What if..." story.

What if 2050 years ago — or 2051, depending on how you count — on March the 15th, the Ides of March, the senators who killed Julius Caesar decided to throw a little party... just to celebrate the elimination of a potential dictator?

One could imagine a gaggle of Roman senators down at their local watering hole ordering mugs of beer, or more likely, wine.

Think of it as an Apres Slaying Party.

Now imagine them a little tipsy, singing what Roman senators no doubt were singing 2,000 years ago: that old drinking ditty, "99 Bottles of Beer (or Wine) on the Wall."

But remember, they were singing before the numbers we use — 26, 44, 58 — were invented. Our numbers are of Arabic derivation. Romans, we think, used numerals — like VII, IX, XVIII.

So instead of "99 Bottles of Wine on the Wall," it would be:

XCIX Bottles of Wine on the Wall, XCIX Bottles of Wine,

And if one of those bottles should happen to fall,

That leaves XCVIII bottles of wine on the wall...

What Did They Really Say?

An exercise like this does make you wonder: When Romans made numerical references in colloquial Latin, what did they actually say?

They couldn't have used numerals — after all, we don't say, "two, two." We say, "twenty-two."

If you were a Roman senator with a 16-year-old son, would you have said, "Hey, come and meet my kid. He's one-six"?

I don't think so. So what did the Romans say?

Nobody we talked to seemed to know.

What about Zero?

What happened when the Romans finished the last bottle of wine and came to the final line of the song?

"Zero" wasn't used as a number when Caesar was around. It became a symbol for "none" or "nothing" a little later.

Ancient mathematicians had a problem using a number for something that was not numerous. And that's why we don't end our song. It just goes... nowhere.

What If We Still Talked Roman?

And finally, since this is a "What if" story: What if Roman numerals had worked their way into our language?

NPR's Mike Pesca helped me think of some of the things we'd be saying:

"My daughter? She can't talk right now. She's getting ready for her Sweet XVI party..."

"Me? I'm in my L's, but like they say, L is the new XL."

"Oh, that Lionel Richie when he was with the Commodores? Who will ever forget his "I..II..III Times a Lady..."

"Unless you prefer the rapper L Cent singing In Da Club, where it is XVIII to party and XXI to drink."

And can you imagine your Social Security number in Roman numerals?

That would never happen.

Special thanks to Josh Kurz of Los Angeles whose other work can be found at a Web site he shares with his friend, Adam, from Brooklyn.

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