The origin of “hundred” doesn’t exactly equal “100”

Donald Trump is coming up on his first one hundred days in office, a conventional measure of the initial success of a new president going back to FDR. But with a thwarted agenda, palace intrigue, and some self-inflicted wounds, Trump is pushing back against the meaningfulness of this traditional 100-day benchmark. What’s a hundred days, after all? he’s asking. Etymologically, Trump may just have a point: The word hundred is a little trickier to reckon than you may think. 

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The etymology of hundred may have you seeing double. (Pixabay
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An etymological “reckoning”

We have evidence for the word hundred as early as the 10th-century Old English translation of the famed Lindisfarne Gospels, illuminated manuscripts composed around the year 700. While the record shows a number of spellings for hundred in Old English, one of them, incredibly, is just that: hundred, unchanged for over a thousand years.

We might expect hundred to be a simple enough word: A hundred refers to the number 100, right? Well, if we break the word down, hundred literally means “count of 100.”

The first part, hund, was itself a word for the numeral 100 in Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests hund earlier than hundred, to around 893. While not certain why, the OED also notes that hund was also sometimes prefixed to the numerals 70 to 120 in Old English, e.g., hund-seofontig was 70, hund-twelftig 120. By this system, hundred itself could be hund-téontig. That -tig was a suffix meaning “group of ten” (téontig = “ten tens”) and became the -ty in words like twenty or ninety.

Hund has very widespread cognates across the Indo-European languages, such as the Latin centum (century, centennial), and is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *dkm-tom. The basis of this etymon is *dekm-, “ten,” itself source of the English ten and Latin’s decem (decimal, December). Historical linguists believe that *dkm-tom lost its initial d– sound at some point, with further sound changes taking place in the remaining k as it evolved in the Proto-Indo-European daughter languages. 

Now, the second part of hundred, -red, comes from an old Germanic root meaning “reckoning,” found in the Gothic raþjo, “reckoning, account, number.” For this root, Indo-European scholars have reconstructed *re(i)-, “to reason” or “count.” Some think the English words riddle and read ultimately derive from this root, via the Old English rædan, “to advise,” related to the -red in Alfred, kindred, hatred. (The name Alfred literally means “elf counsel.”) Via Latin, *re(i) also yields the English ratio and reason.

Word problems

Yet why did hundred have to be the redundant-seeming “count of 100” in the first place? In an article for The Week, James Harbeck gives us an important clue. Harbeck notes hundred was a noun before it was quantifier. The distinction between these two is a little sticky, but as Harbeck has us compare, contrast There were a hundred cats and *There were hundred cats. We don’t say the latter (which is what the asterisk means). And that way we can say a hundred, one hundred, a few hundred or many hundreds of? We can’t do that for, say, seven: *There a few sevens of cats is ungrammatical. Hundred’s literal meaning of a “count of 100” reinforces the word’s noun-ness. 

Number words are very old, can be very complicated, and preserve many historical quirks. Danish, for instance, sees French’s vestiges of base-20 counting and raises its fractions. Yes, fractions: The word for the numeral 50 in Danish is literally “two-and-a-half times 20.”

Heck, hundred in Old Norse didn’t even mean 100: It meant 120. Certain dialects of English, especially ones in northern England that were more influenced by Old Norse, used hundred, sometimes called a long hundred or great hundred, for 120 in figuring goods and communities through the 19th century (“fresh fish sold by the long hundred”).

However our English-speaking ancestors tallied it, hundred at some point came to signify something along the lines of “counting to 100 by 10 groups of 10.” But while there are many ways to count to one hundred, the number 100, no matter how Trump may want it to count, is still 100.

m ∫ r ∫

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