Friday, June 03, 2005

A nickel for your thoughts

I put a finger in my change purse today to coax out a quarter and found an unfamiliar coin. Similar in tint and sheen to a quarter, it was smooth and round, the size of a penny and labeled cents. But how many cents? It was smaller than a quarter, the wrong colour for a penny and too thick for a dime.

The Canadian Victory nickel was issued on May 4, 2005, the 60th anniversary of victory in Europe. V for victory, yes, of course - but V for five?

The original 1943 Victory nickel was made of a different material and had 12 flat sides. The fact that the number 5 was missing was less consequential - who needed it - the distinctive shape identified the nickel. Now I scrutinize a coin whose value is identified only by the V which clasps the torch. The torch I recognize - the torch; be yours to hold it high.

The origins of Roman numeral notation are vague. No one actually knows how V came to stand for the quantity 5. I was taught that V imitates the shape of one hand - five fingers, and X imitates two hands - ten fingers. Others speculate about notches on a tally stick.

Greek and Hebrew numbers were based on a more rational premise than Roman numerals. The first ten letters of the alphabet stood for the numbers 1 to 10, the eleventh for 20, the twelfth for 30 and so on. This system fixed the order of the alphabet in antiquity.

Another Greek system was acrophonic, Δ (delta) for 10 because 10 in Greek, δεκα, started with a Δ. These systems are logical, if you forget a number you can figure it out - but V for five - you either know it or you don't.

The Roman numerals are not even part of the school curriculum for numeracy. Why didn't the Mint consider a 12-sided edition of this nickel, more faithful to the original not less.


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