~ Or: Provenance of pointed point-procurement paraphernalia practices

(say that ten times fast)

“But George,” you besnivel, “how is ‘keeping score’ any kind of idiom?  Keeping score is how we remember points in sports, who won in Scrabble, and all the things you owe us that you haven’t delivered on.”

You would think that!  But it’s not that simple of an explanation.

(Well, ok, that last item was pretty dead on.)

But the whole idea of keeping score floated into my head when I was watching a home improvement video a few years ago.  I wondered about the use of the term scoring in that episode and how it had anything to do with by how many points a local team lost a game.  It then promptly escaped my keto-compatible fatty computer made of meat into some kind of ethersphere to float for years until it effervesced back in [checks watch] yesterday.

Here’s the short version:  the idea of keeping score goes back REALLY FAR.  Much further than you’d imagine.  And it once meant literally exactly what it said.  Scoring took place but not the kind you’re thinking of.  It wasn’t an exclamation for landing that big business deal.


It was scratching a line into a surface with a sharp object.

Kinda.  It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Let’s dive into it.

Side note: this entire post is effectively about m*th and the use of m*th to keep track of things and m*th to settle accounts.  Please keep a guilty pleasure consumable at the nearby in the event that an allergic reaction to discussion of m*th at any time causes you to feel faint.  I know at least one of you reading or listening to this is a literal rocket scientist and I also suspect that you read for leisure, not to be reminded of work.  Direct and very specific apologies to you.

Word origins

In order to capture and keep a score – the score catch-and-release program is a different topic – it’s important to know exactly what is meant by scoring in the first place.  For that, we are going to go back to one of my favorite topic diggings: ancient word origins.

This word “score” seems to come from a combined derivation where a similar-sounding utterance had two similar practices but different meanings.  Let’s explore those meanings.

Original Usage A

Late ye Olde English and Icelandic ‘scoru‘ had a usage that indicated a count of ‘twenty’ of something.

I was today-years-old when I first heard of the concept of vigesimalism.  What is that exactly?  No, it’s not a vegetarian meat-substitute spread.  It’s not a complication of the digestive tract either.

It is effectively counting in 20s, or base-20.  This means that after a count of twenty, a mark would be scored into something.  Compare this to our normal counting system of base-10.  Base-10 is easy because we have eight fingers and two thumbs for a total of ten very easily-accessible things with which to count.  After the number 9, the second column of numbers is activated, what we refer to as the “Tens” column.  Base-20 goes much further.

Ever seen hexadecimal counting with letters in place of numbers that go all the way up to F?  Hexadecimal systems are used in all things computer language because of powers of 2, or binary counting.  The number tree for hexadecimal looks like 123456789ABCDEF before getting to “10”.  Except the “1” in that “10” in decimal counting is actually 16.  There exists a debate about how “10” in hexadecimal should be verbalized.  “Ten” “Hex Ten” “Ten Hex” or “Sixteen” are some examples I could find.  In base-10 counting, we go to “Ten” after “Nine”.  Base-16 counting goes up to 16 before a new column.

So now let’s look at base-20.  Base-20 continues on where hex stops at F and goes all the way to J.  123456789ABCDEFGHIJ before a “tens” column gets marked.

Except when you get to the scored mark, or “10”, it references what we call twenty.

Bonus base-20 reference: Mayan and Aztec cultures took advantage of a base-20 system.  The Mayans particularly recorded the position of the planets and other celestial bodies in that system, as well as it being the numerical system of the “common people.”  To get a peek at what that system looked like, click here and bask in the glory!

That got …. more complicated than I originally thought it would.  Hopefully that makes sense!

Original Usage 2

Old Norse and Proto-Germanic* usage of the then skor term is directly related to cutting something.  To get very specific, it comes out as “mark, notch, incision; a rift in rock.”  This may or may not be related to the base-20 complexity in the previous usage example but is definitely associated with the marking of a thing with a sharp other thing.

Surprisingly enough, that usage is still in place in the modern era.  If you are of a mind to break a piece off of any acrylic, plastic, or plexiglass sheet, one common method of doing so is via use of a straight edge and a sharp blade.  Taking the blade along the edge of the straight guide and cutting not entirely through leaves a gouge in the material.  This process is called “scoring.”  Once the material has been scored, it is relatively easy to brace the object, press down, and break perfectly at the scored line so that you have the piece that you need for your project.

So cutting that plexiglass sheet to the perfect size for the shadow box you’re building?  Guess what?  You’re scoring in the literal sense of the word! Hot dog!

Also, if you are an avid DIYer, you probably already knew that.  But knowledge sharing, right??  And since you’re an avid DIYer you totally have a completely æffable nature of kindness and generosity and you’ll humor me for a few minutes.  Because you’re good people like that.

*does anybody else think about the American version of “Robotech” when they see or hear the term “Proto-Germanic?”  No?  Just me?  Ok then.  Moving on.  Sound the nerd alert.

Continued evolution for keeping score

Because as a race we are not particularly good at letting sleeping dogma lie, we take old words and turn them into new words with new meanings and new usages.  The concept of scoring and a score is no different to that etymological adjustment.  Let’s look at a few of the ways that this term evolved into even more and varying types of practice.  Because practice makes perfect.

Accounting and Finances

Fast forwarding all the way into the future of the 13th and 14th centuries, the term had evolved into more of an official record-keeping usage.  The keeping of the score starts to get closely associated with the use of tallies in accounting systems for tracking finances.  The tallies were the physical wooden rods that marks were scored into for the purpose of keeping accounts updated.

The effectuality of keeping physical scores on tallies eventually went out of favor as technologies and material availability improved.  Probably a good thing too, given the advancements of the modern era bringing tools that took advantage of the sheer flammability of all of the things in society.  Take for example the Great Fire of 1834 that was caused specifically by the incineratory disposal of old and obsolete tally sticks in the basement of the House of Lords.  An oopsie-daisy of a significant magnitude.

But that’s jumping ahead too far.  Let’s go back to the 1590s!

Last Call!

By the end of the 16th century, tavern keepers were already keeping track of how many drinks were being consumed by patrons of their watering holes.  Those tankards aren’t going to pay for themselves, after all.  And some of them patrons could throw back more than a few tall cold ones and it was up to the innkeeper to settle accounts after the fact. Wooden tallies likely lacked in efficiency so enter the use of chalk!  Sometimes on a plank, sometimes directly on the taproom door, but with trackability and the capacity to reuse.  See?  Reuse and recycle has precedence!

And guess what?  This evolved once again into still yet a new usage from the same practice.  Keeping chalk scores on a tablet eventually caught up to the mid-19th century and birthed the notion of the “bar tab.”  The tablet at the bar that knew how many beverages consumed was shortened to tab.  Because I guess scratching names and marks on the door or wall wasn’t a solution that was mobile enough.  Settling the score eventually became settling the tab.  Twists and turns and forks in the road of linguistic transformation, we haz them.

“You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket!”

Ok fine, reactivate the nerd alert.  I was a very complicated child.

Yes, we are now bringing sporting events into the mix of the use of scoring.  Finally.  It took long enough but here we are.  It was in the 1670s that “keeping score” was then referring to a method of recording a point in a game or a match.  Popular sports of that era that could have taken advantage of this newfangled method of point-tracking could be cricket, curling, golf, and lacrosse.  Among others.  Horse racing was in there too but we don’t talk about horse racing.  Because seriously.  A race where they set down right on the horse?  Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy settin’ on Dan Patch?  Make your blood boil?  Well I should say!

Now friends let me tell you what I mean.  I can’t exactly find what they used to call keeping score prior to the adoption of that term.  Tracking points?  Tracing marks? Real good question!  If ya’ll have an answer, email me!

The most conventional and popular usage for the term “keeping score” is the sporting version outlined here. It took us a while to get there, but we made it in the end!  Joyous feast and jubilation!

President Abraham Lincoln’s Speech

For us, four score and seven years ago would be, at the time of this writing, the year 1935.  Four score (4 * 20) plus seven equals out to 87.  At the time of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, the year was 1863 and 87 years prior to that was 1776.  That year is significant in United States history as its recognized birthyear.  It is difficult to find out if “score” was still in common usage in the 1860s, however given the Christian leaning of the nation at the time it is entirely possible that “fourscore” was a reference to a passage in the Bible where in Psalms 90:10 it is noted:  “The years of our life are three score and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet most of them are labor and sorrow; for life is soon cut off and we fly away.”

Folks in the United States were pretty well versed in their Bible in those days (ugh I couldn’t resist that one) so it stands to reason that this reference would not be lost on those within hearing distance.  Even in the nose bleeds.

Other various and sundry usages for keeping score

As with most things where language is concerned, there is evolution.  A lot of it.

Inasmuch as words like “irregardless” and “decimated” can find their ways into the dictionary due to common usage whether or not they are actual words or used correctly, we beg borrow and steal all kinds of things from our language and use them in ways maybe not necessarily originally meant.  There was a time when I found it to be super œffensive for words like “irregardless” to even exist, irrespective of common usage, because they made my brain explode from the backwards double-negative “big word sounding” need to exist.  Now?  I just roll with it.

But you’ll take my double-space after periods and Oxford Comma from my cold, dead hands.

The use of scoring is no different.  There are several ways in which the use of the word ‘score’ has different meanings depending on the context.  Some of them are listed below.

Musical Score

Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiis one is a bit strange.

My assumption at some point was that the scoring of music had to do with early documentation of notes via etching or scoring the lines and notes into a medium of some kind.  Except in the context of musical score, it is music that is written specifically to accompany a film.

The only thing that I can seem to find consistently is from Britannica with the following oft-quoted line: “probably so called from the vertical scoring lines that connect successive related staves.”

…… That’s it.

That’s all I can find.  At least online.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe that that is the entire story but my Google-Fu – usually on point – is completely failing me on this one.

If you, as the reader, have any insight into this specific topic, I am all ears.  I mean, eyes.  Reading material and all.  It’s the segment that is most interesting to me due to my inexhaustible obsession for all things music.  Also because I really don’t like not being able to find answers!

To be continued.

Settling the Score

Yes, we already touched very lightly on the concept of settling the score above.  Consume your fermented beverages, be astounded at how many marks have been made at your name, and grumpily pay out to settle the bill so that the bouncer doesn’t make an example of you.  At some point, though, the concept of settling the score evolved into this weird idea of revenge.  Person A did something super mean or rotten or awful to Person B and now Person B is going to “settle the score” by exacting the uppance that has come to their face.

I suppose you could argue that settling the score in this case is still figuratively correct; someone is keeping mental tally marks about grievances and has decided to eye-for-an-eye the stᵫffing out of it.  Definitely less benign than the idea of balancing out financial accounts, though.  Probably less m*th involved, too.  Clearly they just need to celebrate Festivus and air their grievances and call it a day.

Scoring that Big Promotion

At some point in the vernacular of our culture, there became an association between the “score” of getting points and the “score” of achieving a goal of some form.  Be it a promotion, a new job, a new car, or a sweet deal at a retail establishment.

This is about as far away from the original usage of the word that I think we can get at this point.  The evolution of a numerical amount or carved notch for enumeration to the keeping of marks on a tally to the documentation of numbers of something on a tablet to ….. er ….. achievement.

It even goes so far as to be used as an exclamation in response to something exciting that has happened.

e.g. “You just earned a free coffee.”  with the response being “SCORE!”

So, there’s really very little to bridge the gap between the original meaning and usage of the word to the exclamatory statement referenced above.  Because you are not going to carve a line into the coffee cup with a sharp object.  Coffee would get everywhere.  Obvi.

And seriously.  If anybody found out that you literally scored a new car, they’d think you were nuts for ruining the paint job straight out of the gate.  Very possibly ostracize you from society.  Make you go live off the grid and think about what you’ve done.

Bottom of the 9th, and we’re not even keeping score anymore

We have covered a variety of the different types of ways that keeping score has been done throughout the centuries.

I do not recommend responding with “a sharp object cutting notches into tally rods to mark quantities of twenty” the next time someone asks you “what’s the score?”  It will not end well, there will be funny looks, you might even œffend someone or their sensibilities.  They just want to know if their team is winning, not a dialectal history lesson.  Present them with the points that they have requested and revel in the knowledge that you know something they might not know.

Having said that, if you do respond with the history lesson, email me and let me know how it goes.  The possibilities are endless.

Until next week!

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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