They might know what X means, or V and I, but Roman numerals beyond the basics have largely gone the way of cursive and penmanship as a subject in schools.
Students in high school and junior high get a taste of the Roman system during Latin (where Latin is still taught, anyway). And they learn a few Roman numerals in history class when they study the monarchs of Europe.
But in elementary school, “Roman numerals are a minor topic,” said Jeanine Brownell of early mathematics development at Chicago’s Erickson Institute.
What’s wrong with good ol’ 46 to describe this year’s Super Bowl?
“’No. 46,’ it just kind of sounds like an inventory. ‘Inspected by Joe,’” said Joe Horrigan, an NFL historian and spokesman for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“My son is in first grade, and this recently came up when we were clock shopping,” said Eileen Wolter of Summit, N.J. “He
couldn’t believe they were real numbers.”
Gerard Michon isn’t much of a football fan, but he keeps a close eye on Super Bowls for Numericana.com, where he dissects math and physics and discusses the Roman system ad nauseam.
Starting with Super Bowl XLI in 2007, he has been getting an abnormal number of game-day visits from football fans with a sudden interest in Roman numerals. On the day of last year’s Super Bowl XLV, so many people visited that Michon’s server crashed. When the dust cleared, he had logged 15,278 hits, more than 90 percent landing on “XLV.”
“Last year was total madness,” Michon said, in part “because so many people were wondering why VL isn’t a correct replacement for XLV.”
When the Super Bowl started, the games were assigned simple Roman numerals “that everybody knows,” he said. Now “it looks kind of mysterious.”
The use of Roman numerals to designate Super Bowls began with game V in 1971. Numerals I through IV were added later for the first four Super Bowls.
“The NFL didn’t model after the Olympics,” said Dan Masonson, the league’s director of corporate communications. He said the system was adopted to avoid any confusion that might occur because the Super Bowl is held the year after the one in which most of the regular season is played.