You see these all the time in movies, usually when some poor guy has been wrongly imprisoned and begins counting the days since his incarceration, but what are these markings called? I used to know, but I've forgotten and now it's really bugging me.

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    The origin of tally marks were notches often carved in wood sticks and used as a reminder of commercial transactions when coins were not as common as today. The word tally comes from Latin talea [It. scion ] through French entailler: to notch. See also how this notation is akin to the ogam alphabet. For instance the first sign "ᚎ" is called sraif . The ogham inscriptions which have come down to us are carved on stone but there were probably many more on wood. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 10:54
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    @Alain Your comment should be an answer.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 11:22
  • Tally marks were recently asked about on Economics SE economics.stackexchange.com/q/119/130 might be interesting to others. ALSO: This was a great question @Django! Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


They are called tally marks.

Tally marks, or hash marks, are a unary numeral system. They are a form of numeral used for counting. They allow updating written intermediate results without erasing or discarding anything written down. However, because of the length of large numbers, tallies are not commonly used for static text.

  • Aha! Now I remember. That's been bugging me for days. How annoying. Thanks. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 17:20
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    Or hash marks, too.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 17:27
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    Also sometimes called a 5-bar-gate tally.
    – AAT
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 22:35

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