Words about words: score

A 15th-century word meaning 20

a score of eggs

Photo: Viacheslav Krisanov / Colourbox
A score of eggs, as sold in shops in Norway.

Asker, Norway

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of Nov. 19, 1863, begins with the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago …” That has made “score” a famed word of counting, as the address is engraved on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

The word “score,” in the sense of meaning 20, is derived from the Old Norse word skor, from the practice of counting sheep, cattle, and other farm products, by making a notch, called a “score” on a stick, before proceeding to count the next 20. It first appeared in print in English around the year 1400, in The Romaunt of the Rose, a partial translation into Middle English of the allegorical poem Le Roman de la Rose (in French) made by English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s – 1400).

Photo: public domain
Hunter manuscript, held by University of Glasgow.

Linguistic scholars believe that in his time, Chaucer’s choice of Le Roman de la Rose for translation into English may have been influenced by its popularity among Parisians and among French-speaking nobility in England. Moreover, Chaucer may have believed that the work’s controversial treatment of women and sex would benefit its genre of English literature.

Moreover, in translating as he did, Chaucer set the standard of preserving faithfulness to an original that is so readily lost in translating poetry. Like Le Roman, The Romaunt is written in octosyllabic, iambic tetrameter couplets, matching the  meter of the original.

In 1532, English courtier William Thynne (? – 1546) published the first comprehensive edition of Chaucer’s work that included The Romaunt, working under a commission by King Henry VIII to search out the Chaucer manuscripts held by English libraries and monasteries.

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.