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Why are Roman numerals still used today primarily on clocks and film titles?

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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It's mainly just inertia. Roman numerals were already being used, so in many contexts they're still used. Much like that double-l in still.

There will be a plethora of subsidiary reasons. One that comes to mind is that Roman numerals may lend a touch of 'gravitas' - making your clock or film, for example, look a bit more classy because of the historical associations.

I've often heard that Roman numerals on tv/movie copyright dates are partly intended to be obscure so you don't dismiss something as 'too old to bother watching'. But I think that's an urban myth, since you don't normally see the copyright notice until after you've watched the thing.

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"you don't normally see the copyright notice until after you've watched the thing": Before 1978 (when the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect), copyright dates had to be present on the title card of the film, or (as in the case of Night of the Living Dead) the work would be rendered ineligible for copyright protection status and fall into the public domain. (This sometimes appears today as well: for instance, Quentin Tarantino's film Jackie Brown includes a "Copyright MCMXCVII, All Rights Reserved" under the title as an homage to the seventies era.) –  Stuart P. Bentley Jun 3 '11 at 15:35
@Stuart P. Bentley: I find that somewhat implausible. I was writing software before 1978, and it's always been the case that you don't even need to actually display the copyright notice at all, let alone early on. It just has to be embedded somewhere, to simplify staking your claim. –  FumbleFingers Jun 3 '11 at 15:57
@FumbleFingers: Technically, the placement rules for the copyright notice didn't change by the act itself (the 1970 edition of The Compendium of Copyright Office Practices states "The law does not specify where a notice should be placed on a motion picture film, but the Office will recommend that the notice appear on or near the title frame."), but it was around the time of the act's passage that the convention started shifting towards the end of the credits in Hollywood. –  Stuart P. Bentley Jun 3 '11 at 17:13
Also, it can't just be "embedded somewhere": (from the same page) “The notice should be permanently legible to an ordinary user of the work under normal conditions of use and should not be concealed from view upon reasonable examination.” (“Registration will be refused if the notice appears only on one of the reels in the middle of the film.”) –  Stuart P. Bentley Jun 3 '11 at 17:23
@Stuart P. Bentley: Ah well, that's something of a US / UK difference then. When I started writing my own copyrighted software in the mid-70's the advice to me was that I didn't need to display anything at all to the user, nor to formally register my copyright as such. Just that it would be easier to pursue a claim for infringement later if I did embed the details somewhere in the product. –  FumbleFingers Jun 3 '11 at 17:38
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They have many other uses. For example, in music theory, they denote the chords based on the steps of diatonic scales. For example, I-IV-V represents the standard "three chord" rock or blues chord progression. In upper case they represent major chords, in lower case minor: I-vi-IV-V7-I. Note that the V7 combines two number systems, the first for the chord position, the second for the alteration (in this case the dominant 7).

As Wikipedia notes:

Classical numbering is often used to suggest importance or timelessness, or in other cases where an alternate numbering system is useful for clarity.

Hence monarchs and popes use Roman numerals after their names: Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII, Louis XIV, etc. Even ordinary people use them when they hand their names down to their children: August Busch IV (former chairman of Anheuser-Busch, for example).

Outline form often uses Roman numerals in conjunction with letters and Arabic numbering to make clear distinction between levels of hierarchy. Open up Word or another word processor to see this in action.

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I don't think this answers the actual question: why... –  HaL Jun 3 '11 at 12:14
@HaL: I took "why" to mean "for what reason?" (i.e. what are they used for?) Not the teleological why. –  Robusto Jun 3 '11 at 12:18
I understand what they're used for, I'm still not clear why they suggest 'importance or timelessness' –  Ambo100 Jun 3 '11 at 12:45
@Ambo100: They suggest that because they are an older form of writing numbers, and therefore lend the dignity of age. –  Robusto Jun 3 '11 at 12:49
I have heard it suggested that films use them because they are harder to read, so the age of the film will be less obviously apparent. I am a little sceptical of these, though. –  Colin Fine Jun 3 '11 at 13:44
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The only acceptable reason to answer your question is, it's hard to stop using something which is widely used. it has grown to be something that is widely used by everyone in today's society:

  • They are still used in almost all cases for the copyright date on films, television programs, and videos
  • They are also used to show the hours on some analogue clocks and watches.
  • They are used for the preliminary pages of book before the main page numbering gets under way.
  • Sporting events are often numbered using Roman numerals.
  • Monarchs are usually numbered in Roman
  • This form is also sometimes seen in naming eldest sons in American families where successive generations bear the same first name.
  • They are found in numbering paragraphs in complex documents to clarify which are main sections.
  • Roman numerals can be seen on public buildings, monuments and gravestones, sometimes when the inscription is in Latin but often just to give the date a certain gravity.
  • They are an additive (and subtractive) system in which letters are used to denote certain "base" numbers, and arbitrary numbers are then denoted using combinations of symbols.
  • Roman numerals use letters to represent values.

Roman numeral-history and use.

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I already know what they're used for, I was looking at why it hasn't faded away like all the other numbering systems/languages. –  Ambo100 Jun 3 '11 at 18:51
"it's hard to stop using something which is widely used. it has grown to be something that is widely used by everyone in today's society" .. you read my answer? it's widely used in different fields . –  Gigili Jun 3 '11 at 19:19
I understand that, but the examples provided weren't necessary as I had researched that before hand. –  Ambo100 Jun 3 '11 at 20:53
@Ambo100: Just skip them, I wrote them to make my answer more complete. but the reason is still there! –  Gigili Jun 3 '11 at 21:13
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On clocks, at least, it seems logical to avoid putting '6' and '9'in positions where it is entirely possible to read them upside down (since conventions vary about whether the numerals face outwards or downwards). VI cannot be misread as IV, and some clocks have IIII for 4 and VIIII for 9, presumably for just this reason.

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sincerely I do not think that is a reason. Here the only reason I see is graphical-design reasons. A clock with Roman numerals can be more beatifull than another which do not have them. However, I do apreciate your answer based on logical arguments. –  user19148 Apr 1 '12 at 21:17
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They are used at the end of TV shows supposedly because the copyright laws require a date but the makers don't want the show to look old - so they put


rather than 1998

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Do you have any references for the law requirement and the makers' wish? –  Hugo Mar 13 '12 at 16:38
@Hugo - the BBC's requirements for programs bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/production/… –  mgb Mar 13 '12 at 17:23
@hugo, at least in the US a date would seem to be required copyright.gov/title17/92chap4.html although not necessarily in Roman numerals ! –  mgb Mar 13 '12 at 17:30
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