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Jun 2, 2003
This week's theme
Numeric terms

This week's words
sixty-four-dollar question

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with Anu Garg

Consider this sentence:
"He went to look for Aldornia in her office but got a 404."
Or this:
"By the time I came back to my desk, my book had 404ed."

Anyone who has been on the Internet for more than a few days would immediately know what 404 means. It indicates someone or something missing, alluding to the error code that Web servers spit out when a page is not found. With our creative capacity to extend meanings of words, we use them in completely unrelated contexts. And that's one of the ways language grows.

It remains to be seen whether 404 will make it to the dictionary, but many other numeric terms are now part of the English lexicon.

We use 101 to refer to something introductory or elementary on a topic ("Thorismud doesn't know even etiquette 101"), from the use of the number to identify the first course on a subject in a school or university.

From geometry, we get "180 deg. turn" when referring to complete reversal ("The company went 180 deg. on its strategy"). From the business world, there is 24/7, to indicate complete availability ("He attended the sick child 24/7") referring to the number of hours in a day and the number of days in a week).

This week we'll feature terms originating in a variety of fields -- a game show, rhyming slang, optometry, nautical lingo, and literature. One thing they have in common is that they're all numeric terms.

sixty-four-dollar question or $64 question

(SIKS-tee fohr DOL-uhr KWES-chuhn) Pronunciation

noun: The critical question about a problem; a crucial issue.

[From a popular radio quiz show in the US in the 1940s which offered $64 as the largest prize. The first question had a prize of $1 and the prize total doubled with each successive question: $2, 4, 8, 16, 32, culminating in the $64 question. With inflation, this term is used in many variant forms, such as, "$64,000 question" and upwards.]

"'We still don't know if he's an enemy combatant,' Mr. Dunham said. 'That's the $64 question.'"
Katharine Q. Seelye; Appeals Court Again Hears Case of American Held Without Charges or Counsel; The New York Times; Oct 29, 2002.

"Now, the sixty-four million-dollar question. Need one have learned a second language to teach English as a second language?"
Cultural Imperialism and the English Language Teacher; The Korea Times (Seoul, South Korea); Feb 24, 2000.


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