Simanaitis Says

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AM I REGRESSING to nursery rhymes in my dotage? No, it’s just that the recent “See You and Raise You 40” here at SimanaitisSays reminded me of “four and twenty blackbirds/baked in a pie.”

Ignoring for a moment the matter of songbird cuisine, it was the reinterpretation of 24 that captured my attention. Do we also have “three and fifty”? “Two and twenty”? What about in other languages?

This called for some sleuthing, an inevitable gleaning of tidbits, and more information than I know what to do with. Well, yes I do: Parts 1 and 2, today and tomorrow. Or should I say “today and four and twenty hours” from now?

Two and Twenty. Let’s dispense with “Two and Twenty” because it’s something of a red herring to our general discussion. In current usage, it’s not a charming way of describing 22. According to, “Two and twenty (or ‘2 and 20’) is a fee arrangement that is standard in the hedge fund industry and is also common in venture capital and private equity.”

The “Two” is an annual management fee of 2 percent of assets under management. The “Twenty” is a performance fee of 20 percent of profits made by the fund above a certain predefined benchmark.

Neither has anything to do with numerical poetics.

“Sing a Song of Sixpence. By contrast, as it appeared in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book: The First Collection of English Nursery Rhymes, 1744, the nursery rhyme began “Sing a Song of Sixpence,/A bag full of Rye,/Four and twenty Naughty Boys,/Baked in a Pye.”

In fact, its origins are earlier, though obscure: In Twelfth Night, c. 1602, Shakespeare has Sir Toby Belch (what a great name!) say, “Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.” And it didn’t take long for Beaumont and Fletcher’s Bonduca, 1614, to include, “Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song o’ sixpence.”

Blackbirds Replace Naughty Boys. I suppose one should prefer eating songbirds to cannibalism, and by 1780, naughty boys gave way to blackbirds. What’s more, as described by Harry Wallop in The Telegraph, September 18, 2014, even these days the French eat orlatan, Emberiza hortulana. Writes Wallop, “The customary way of eating orlatan, a delicate songbird, involves the diner covering his or her head with a large napkin. Tradition dictates that this is to shield—from God’s eyes—the shame of such a decadent and disgraceful act.”

Perhaps suggesting my feelings on the matter, I’m on the Brexit side of the Chunnel with this one.

Number Versus Numeral. Let’s have the briefest pause here to differentiate “number,” the abstract concept, and “numeral,” the symbol used to describe the concept. Cultures differ in their choice of numerals; almost all have fairly similar and sophisticated senses of number, of oneness, twoness, and more.

Our ten fingers give us a liking for base 10 as a system and grouping things into tens as a habit. Cultures and languages differ in what happens after the first ten, however. And some don’t even get that far, with 1, 2, and many being sufficient conceptually for some cultures.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see how the Germans, French, and Danes handle all this. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Mike B
    February 4, 2020

    The “four and twenty” arrangement is exactly what German uses: “vier und zwanzig”

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