What does a ‘score’ mean?
“Score” is an English word used for a group or set of twenty things, not just years. The word is most likely derived from “skora”, an Old Norse term used for indicating a tally or notch in addition to meaning 20, the number. The origin of “score” word for twenty comes from a progression of scores that we usually refer to as ‘grooves’ in contemporary English. People formerly used the term for counting increments of twenty by moving a thumbnail from one score to the next. Therefore, twenty years make one score.
The History of the Score
From a long time in history until the twentieth century, a numeral system based on twenty was used by the English shepherds. It was known as Vigesimal and was derived from ‘vicesimus’, a Latin adjective. There are specific European languages that have traces of the base-20 counting within their names of numerals. There are high chances when bases of 20 and 10 coexisted, as conversions between the bases are pretty easy up to several hundred. Also, it was not just shepherds, but many others too used this base-20.
The English shepherds used the names of numerals in particular for indicating they were able to count 1 to 19 by using only the fingers of a hand. They also used staves that had azimuthal rings scored within them. For example, they could stick the thumbnail of their other hand into successive rings for tallying increments of 20.
The Number System
The numbers fit the counting system wherein the forefinger and index finger each count 1 when straight and 2 when curved, like 1 and 2. The rest of the fingers are for counting five each. Each rhyming pair introduce one finger straight followed by a finger curled. The other fingers are introduced in succession at intervals of 5. The numbers go something like this:
After reaching gigit, the person used to run out of fingers. Hence, s/he goes back to the hand to fist method of counting that is mentioned above. The thumbnail of the other hand advances down the staff a score. The shepherds could use two hands for counting up to 399. However, there is no proof that they actually did so. On the other hand, the design of the staves, as well as the usage of the term “score”, hints that physical scores were used for the multiples of 20.
What is Vigesimalism?
Roman numbers let you count up to 99 with two hands and nine on one. You can use a thumb for denoting V while the rest of the fingers can represent I each. On the other hand (no pun intended!), you can use the thumb for L while the other fingers can be X each. The connecting notion is probably counting larger numbers using a notch into a stick for every 20. For example, counting sheep, etc. This way of counting is known as vigesimalism. It is also present in French.
In Old French, ‘vint’ means twenty, so a vint or its multiple can be used as the base. For example, dous vinz et diz is 50 while vint et doze is 32. Vigesimalism continues to be a part of Breton, non-IE Basque, Gaelic, Irish as well as Welsh. As per speculations, the French and the English picked this system of counting from the Celts. (See How many seconds are in a year?)
Uses of the Word ‘Score’
If we look at the prehistoric meaning of the word ‘score’, it might come up as a straight mark such as a line or scratch drawn from any sharp instrument. However, in English, the meaning got a new addition with the sense of a mark made on a surface, such as a chalkboard, for keeping count of the customer’s drinks at a bar or tavern. Towards the 1670s, the sense was further extended to a mark drawn with the purpose of recording any point in a match or game. Thus, people could define ‘score’ as an “aggregate of points made by contestants in certain games and matches”. From the sense of tavern-keeping, we get the meaning ‘amount on the bill of the innkeeper’ and so, we get the figurative verbal expression of settling scores.
One of the most famous uses of the term ‘score’ to indicate a group of twenty years can be seen in the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. Here, he says, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This line was echoed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the opening lines of his well-known ‘I Have a Dream speech: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”