ciento

The last posting, about hawk, was number 100 in the Spanish-English Word Connections series, so it’s appropriate to make today’s topic the Spanish word ciento that, even when shortened to cien before a noun, still means ‘a hundred.’ The synonymous Latin original was centum, whose cent- corresponds to the hund- in the native English cognate hundred (with the -red developing from a Germanic root that meant ‘reckoning, number,’ senses similar to those of the apparent Latin cognate ratio).

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Latin centum, which was pronounced kentum, had developed from Indo-European *dkm-tom, whose first element led to Latin decem and Spanish diez as well as English ten. It’s not clear what sense the Indo-European suffix -tom conveyed in its own right, but the compound *dkm-tom ultimately came to mean ‘ten groups of ten.’§ As for form, the d of *dkm-tom was eventually lost, and the -kmt- of the remainder went on to produce Latin cent(um) and English hund(red).

The Modern Latin phrase per centum ‘for [each] hundred’ has become Spanish por ciento. English originally borrowed the Latin phrase in full, then began abbreviating it per cent., with a period to show that cent. was indeed an abbreviation. Only in the early part of the 20th century—another derivative, like Spanish centuria, of Latin centum—did English drop the period, writing at first per cent, then the combined percent that is the usual current form.

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§ On that score, I have to report that a few decades ago I was in a supermarket on Long Island and overheard a nearby woman tell her daughter that ten times ten is a hundred, which is true enough, and that a hundred times a hundred is a thousand, which is not.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ariana Vincent
    Dec 24, 2010 @ 03:27:46

    OMG, you didn’t tell me there would be math involved!

    You wrote: “On that score, I have to report that a few decades ago I was in a supermarket on Long Island and overheard a nearby woman tell her daughter that ten times ten is a hundred, which is true enough, and that a hundred times a hundred is a thousand, which is not.”

    Leave it to a mathematician to cleverly insert math into a language lesson!

    Un millón de gracias!

    Reply

  2. wordconnections
    Dec 24, 2010 @ 05:48:18

    As I see it, math is a language. Conversely, language has its rules, just like math. (I’ve managed to sneak some nature photographs into this language blog, too.)

    Steve

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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