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February 2nd, 2005

The Roman numeral IIII / are they actresses or actors?

by Barbara Wallraff

Philipp Goedicke, of San Francisco, writes: “For a while now, I’ve noticed ads for Rolex watches in which the 4 o’clock hour is represented by ‘IIII.’ I wrote this off as being a joke on the uneducated rich. But recently I saw an issue of Town and Country. In the ads in that magazine, I noticed that almost every kind of watch with Roman numerals on its face has ‘IIII’ for the number 4. Am I missing something? Is ‘IIII’ an acceptable substitute for ‘IV’?”

Dear Philipp: Well, you’re right that “IV” is the usual Roman numeral for 4. By putting the symbol for “1” before the symbol for “5,” it indicates “1 less than 5.” On watch and clock faces, though, the use of “IIII” is and always has been standard, according to Paul Lewis, a British journalist who knows an awful lot about this subject. Lewis reports that the world’s oldest clock face in its original condition is in Wells Cathedral, in Somerset, England. On this clock face, which was made more than 600 years ago, the number 4 appears as “IIII.” Lewis says, further, that manuscripts in the Wells Cathedral library show that for centuries before the cathedral’s clock was made, “the use of IIII -- or more precisely iiii or iiij -- for 4 was commonplace even though 9 was normally depicted by IX or ix.”

A few later clocks with Roman numerals do use “IV,” rather than “IIII.” The most famous of these is London’s Big Ben, made in the 1850s. As for why “IIII” remains standard on even brand-new clocks and watches -- sorry, no one knows for sure. To see various theories about this, including Lewis’ own, visit www.paullewis.co.uk.

Frank Walker, of Troy, Mich., writes: “Are ‘actresses’ female and ‘actors’ male? I often hear women calling themselves ‘actors’ on TV interview shows. I never hear a man saying he is an ‘actress.’ Am I wrong in assuming there is a gender reference built into the two words?”

Dear Frank: Until recently “actor” did almost always refer to males, and “actress” to females. But “actress” is beginning to go the way of “authoress,” for a female author, and “aviatrix,” for a female pilot. Women who write books nowadays are, of course, called “authors,” and women who fly planes are called “aviators” or “pilots.” And yet the words “actor” and “actress” are slightly different from these others, because women who act aren’t doing exactly the same job as men. That is, women actors don’t play men’s parts, or vice versa -- or when they do, you can bet it’s reflected in a gender-bending plot.

So on the one hand, it’s fine with me if a woman wants to call herself an actor. She doesn’t need to spell out that she’s female -- we can probably figure it out for ourselves. On the other hand, it’s fine with me if she calls herself an actress, or someone else does. I’m waiting until the Academy Awards rename their categories Best Male Actor and Best Female Actor before I decide that “actress” is all washed up.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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