The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Postfix operators we learnt in kindergarten

with 8 comments

I don’t know about your school, but in our school we kids went through several years without ever realising what the multiplication table we were saying actually said. As a result, we were all familiar with at least one postfix operator — the postfix multiplication operator “zar” (pronounced “zawr”). As we recited our “tables”:

Two one zar two,
Two two zar four,
Two three zar six,

and so on (always ending with a singsong, triumphant, “two ten zar twenty”.)

“Zar” was routinely treated as an operator (“what is six seven zar?”), and it was quite an epiphany to me (in class seven I think) when I suddenly realised what had been going on; I suspect many of my classmates still haven’t caught on. (BTW, what is the technical name for this, where “ones are” → “one zar”? Closest I know is Allomorph.)

Also, our “into” (for multiplication) is used for division in the US (at least), so our “five into twenty is hundred”, but their “five into twenty goes four [times]”. And the “by” — “thirty by forty is 0.75”, but a thirty-by-forty site is 30 × 40.

More to ponder — which parts of India say “by” in fractions and which say “over”? (Is “3/4” “three by four” or “three over four”? Of course it’s “three-fourths”…) Which ones say “aitch” and which ones say “hetch”? We always learnt it with the aspirated “h”, and that’s the way it seems to be in Chennai too.

“Pronunciation /heɪtʃ/ (and hence spelling haitch) is […] standard in Hiberno-English. In Northern Ireland it is a shibboleth as Protestant schools teach aitch and Catholics haitch.”

Meanwhile, I’ve always wanted to slaughter the (incorrect) Hindi-inspired “give exam” speakers, but it looks like the battle is being lost (in CMI, it had spread to even proper Bangalore/Chennai types). Maybe I should also find and resurrect my old zedzee and emptyset-not-phi rants while I’m in the mood…


Written by S

Wed, 2007-10-03 at 09:24:15

Posted in Uncategorized

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8 Responses

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  1. I remember my uncle from India quizzing me on multiplication when I was young. He asked me something like what “five into seven” was. I’d never heard that terminology before, but logically, it seemed to mean seven divided by five—after all, it would seem that, say, three into twelve would be four since three could fit “into” twelve four times. In any case, I didn’t know enough math to be able to produce the division answer (1.4) so I said something like “we haven’t learned those fractions yet” and then he scolded me for not knowing the answer he was expecting, 35. It still seems illogical to me to use “into” for division.


    Wed, 2007-10-03 at 11:07:00

  2. Heh, that must have been a bitter experience…

    I agree that it it does not seem logical. But then again, convention is not often decided by logic. I think it seems more logical to me to use “into” for subtraction — seven into five is two, because if seven tries to go into five, two of it will still remain. Or maybe five into seven is two — five can go into seven, and there will still be room for two left over.

    Also, I think the “into” was more the name of the symbol (the multiplication sign) than the operation — from what I remember, it used to be used only in contexts where “plus” and “minus” would be used too.. maybe there can be some justification for why that symbol would be called “into”, but I can’t think of anything.


    Thu, 2007-10-04 at 05:43:52

  3. Yes, the subtraction sense seems logical too. I don’t mind arbitrary conventions but I don’t like when they logically suggest a different meaning.

    Anyway I wasn’t too bothered by the episode—though he didn’t seem to understand why I had misunderstood, so I came away from it with a little less respect for his judgment. He’s good in other ways, though!


    Thu, 2007-10-04 at 09:02:15

  4. so blorians and chennaites are “take exam” types in general ?


    Sun, 2007-10-07 at 13:44:27

  5. Eh? You should know :P
    (IIRC, it’s not often “take”, but it’s usually not the opposite word to something correct :P)


    The teacher “gives” the exam and the student “takes” the exam, or “writes” it.
    Less commonly, students “sit for an exam” or “do the exam”, or “sit the exam” (BrE).
    (But students more frequently “take a test”.)


    Sun, 2007-10-07 at 20:55:15

  6. Randomly bumped into this page when searching for something else. I was totally mindfucked when I discovered in 3rd year of college that ‘zar’ was actually “‘s are”. Thunderous!

    And ‘into’ apparently dates back to the 15th century! (remember reading somewhere on wiki)


    Sat, 2010-03-20 at 13:13:29

    • Why do you find it surprising? (15th century just means that’s the earliest citation the OED has for this particular usage of “into”.) Do you think it’s too long ago, or too recent?

      I’ve uploaded screenshots of the OED’s citations here and here, if you want to take a look.


      Wed, 2010-05-05 at 13:26:36

  7. you ‘zar’ so right!


    Wed, 2010-04-14 at 09:40:01

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