roman numeral

This year marks the 50th super bowl, and the NFL announced last week that it would just go with “50” instead of its usual Roman numeral grand spectacular — missing the chance to be SuperBowL. And I approve.

Look, I love my share of dead languages. Ancient Greek is not Greek to me. That being said, Roman numerals are one of the least useful things the Romans left us. Alphabet? Love it. “Carpe diem”? Love it. “Caveat emptor”? Big fan. “E Pluribus Unum”? Sign me up. Virgil’s fun, and I’d say that even if he hadn’t been so nice squiring Dante around the underworld. And don’t get me started on Catullus, or I’ll have to give you a thousand reasons more and then a hundred, and then another thousand — well, heh heh, somewhat forced Catullus joke, high-five, six people.

This high-five brings me to the trouble with Roman numerals. Try to give an Ancient Roman a high-five and already you have a problem. “What are you doing?” you ask. “Are you Winston Churchill now?”

The whole set-up is illogical.

They remind me of the way we used to tell time before the way we told time was “look at your cellphone and read aloud the time it says.” (“Quarter to twelve?” “Half past eight”? Just say the dang number.) I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X? “Put it on the left if you’re one bereft,” is the only mnemonic I could come up with, and it lacks something.

How much respect can you have for a civilization whose idea of a way to say “eight” was “VIII”? I know, I know, they built the aqueducts. But 34 was XXXIV! XXXIV!

Look at the inscription on any old monument or bookplate and tell me you don’t quail a little. M is okay. C is okay. Then there’s another C, and sometimes an L and an X or a V or a couple of I’s and suddenly you wish this were in something comparatively straightforward like, say, binary or cuneiform.

How much respect can you have for a civilization whose notation for all years after 2000 sounds like a Hanson single? MM…CIV! MM…LI! MMXIV! And that’s neater than it was last century. MCMLXIV? It looks like a keysmash. Is this a barcode? Is it trying to talk? What’s going on? LIII? LIX? LXXIV? Are you upset, date? Are you speaking in tongues? Should I call someone? And it only gets more hideous the farther you go. Next century we can look forward to MMCLIV, which sounds like a terrible concert or nightmarish media conglomerate.

It’s inefficient. And it isn’t even aesthetically pleasing, which can sometimes excuse inefficiency. It’s just a string of consonants that look like they used to be part of a hashtag convoy and got lost. Why do we still use this, ever?

I am all for old ways. I prefer them to the new ways with a devotion that is little short of knee-jerk. Right after we finish here I’m going to go put on a hoop skirt and catch a little bit of smallpox, just to show my commitment. But this is simply not the best way. The Super Bowl is right this year. I just wish it would keep on.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".