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The question title refers to expressing thousands using multiples of hundreds, like saying "twelve hundred" instead of "one thousand two hundred"

This is somehow new to me. I may have heard it, like, less than five times in the past (and totally ignored as some kind of weirdness), but due to a huge increase to English exposure (I moved abroad, so it's either English or be silent) I've begun to hear it much more often. I didn't do a statistic, but I've got the feeling that 99% of it comes from watching movies and documentaries on Netflix.

I made some search on Google, but I couldn't find a satisfying answer to the basic questions: why/when/where. I mean, what's the origin of this habit, where does it come from, and why people use it at all? Don't you stumble every time doing the math for it, either you are saying or you are hearing?

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    "twelve hundred" = 2 words, 3 syllables. "one thousand two hundred" = 4 words, 6 syllables. – fixer1234 May 30 '17 at 7:01
  • Google searches turn up 'No results found for "in the one thousand three hundreds" ' but 8000 results for "in the thirteen hundreds". Dates have almost always been given in the second way. – Edwin Ashworth May 30 '17 at 7:31
  • I'd add to @fixer1234's wise comment that 'thirteen hundreds' sounds less clunky than 'one thousand[,] three hundreds', as well as being shorter. The two are not always the same (though clunkiness lessens with use). – Edwin Ashworth May 30 '17 at 7:58
  • It's common for quantities between 1100 and 1900 but very rare for quantities over 2000, for instance "thirty one hundred" for 3100. One reason for its use, to me, is when making comparisons between quantities just below and just above the one thousand mark. For instance "The Nimbus X is nine hundred and seventy pounds but the Nimbus XR is eleven hundred and fifty". This makes the comparison much more direct. – BoldBen May 30 '17 at 9:11
  • The math isn't usually hard, because if it's a numeral you just read the first two digits and then the trailing zeros as "hundred", so 1900=nineteen-hundred. – 1006a May 30 '17 at 9:12
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Answer Summary

Counting in hundreds is a survival of the usage in mediaeval England (or earlier), where a largely uneducated population dealt with quantitation in a few particular circumstances where great precision was not required. I suggest that its origin reflected the fact that it is simpler to express numerical ideas in terms of a single base quantity of suitable size (‘hundred’, ‘score’, ‘dozen’) in combination with small numbers — not more than two digits, and typically in the range 1–20 (for which distinct numbers exist in English). Counting in hundreds is also found in French and German, where other examples of numerical devices reflecting what I suggest is the same underlying psychology also occur.

Detailed Argument

The use of ‘hundreds’ in this manner dates from at least the middle ages. The Middle English Dictionary, for example, contains the following from ca. 1330:

“He miȝt him se.. ten hundred kniȝtes…”

and:

“He [St. Francis] deide tweolf hundred ȝer and sixe and twenti riȝht Aftur ore louerdes burtime”

That, I hope, answers the “when?” and “where?” of the question. To deal with the “why?” (as far as the origin of the usage is concerned) it would seem necessary consider how quantitative concepts were expressed in a mediaeval society. The poster articulates the contemporary standpoint of one envisaging ‘1200’ in one’s mind, and then deciding whether to express that verbally as ‘one thousand two hundred’ or ‘twelve hundred’. However my thesis — which I can argue but not prove — is that for ordinary people in the middle ages (and earlier) there would be no choice: they would merely employ the natural method of counting in hundreds. This, I contend, reflects a general linguistic/psychological approach to quantitation by combining a single convenient base unit with relatively low and mainly integral numbers, which is easier for an uneducated population that generally does not require any greater precision than such numbers and their halves and quarters.¶

Examples of this general psychology of enumeration can be seen in the fact that single units were traditionally used for measurement. A person’s height was measured in feet, cloth was measured in yards, a horse’s height in hands, distances in furlongs or miles or leagues. Although an English mid-twentieth century school-child would have had to learn the relationship between such units from inches to miles, originally they were seldom used together; rather they were used individually for different purposes. Indeed more often than not there was no simple relationship between different units, and their rationalization to allow integral inter-conversion only came later in their existence. This has been discussed in relation to another SE question on the usage of yards for distance, and feet for height.

If we now turn to counting larger numbers, we can see how the orders of magnitude, ‘hundred’ and ‘thousand’ bear a formal relationship to units such as yards and miles.† (Note the use of ten hundred, rather than one thousand in the first citation above — the writer is thinking in a single register of hundreds.) This is supported by the fact that there were other non-base-ten orders of magnitude in use for lower ranges: dozen (12) and score (20). The dozen is still very much with us (and the word also exists in French and German), although the ‘score’ survives mainly in literature — the Bible, of course, and poetry into the nineteenth century (e.g. in Whittier’s Barbara Frietchie).

The poster may perhaps think that counting in hundreds is confined to English if he is a native speaker of a language such as Spanish or Italian, where apparently this is not found. However it is found in one romance language — French. Most obviously one can express dates in this manner — the year 1300 can be expressed as mille trois cents (one thousand three hundred) or treize cents (thirteen hundred). However counting in hundreds dates back to at least the fourteenth century in Les Chroniques de Sire Jean Froissart, a military history:

“Quand ils se trouvèrent tous ensemble, si furent plus de douze cents lances.

(twelve hundred lances (men armed with lances or similar?))

More recently, Balzac used it in a financial context in Le Père Goriot (1910):

“Les choses sont comme cela chez vous, si l’on vous envoie douze cents francs par an.

(…twelve hundred francs per year.)

and a recent internet search revealed that le douze cents is a contemporary idiom used by cyclists for mountains over 1200 metres.

My postulate regarding using various bases for counting is also seen in French: 20 is used as a base in the number 80 — quatre-vingt (four twenties) — presumably a remnant of ancient usage.

In German, too, counting in hundreds is longstanding. The following example is from Martin Luther in the sixteenth century:

“Ist das nicht greifliche Lugen g’nug, die mit zwölf hundert Jahren…”

(…twelve hundred years)

A later example is from a newspaper of 1805:

“…in einer Tiefe von zwölf hundert Klafter unter der Meeresfläche”

(to a depth of twelve hundred fathoms below the surface of the sea)

I am not sure how current this usage is today, but I was able to find one web page that had zwölf hundert Jahren in its title.

French and German have also employed the device of using a single convenient base, even after the adoption of the metric system. Thus, in contrast to the SI system used by scientists internationally in which only base units separated by three powers of ten are employed (microlitre — millilitre — litre), one finds cl used for volume (75 cl on bottles of wine, rather than 750 ml), hectares (100 ares — 10,000 square metres) for large areas, and hectograms (etti in Italian — 100 g) for weights of butter etc.

Why are literate and numerate English speakers (in both Britain and the US) still counting in hundreds in the twenty first century (another example, incidentally)? Traditional usage, perhaps — as in the examples given by @ChrisH — reinforced by our literary culture. However, also because it is often easier. Consider a bank clerk/teller counting out £1200 in £100 notes. He would likely start “One hundred, two hundred…” then shift to “three, four…” and end by saying “ten, eleven, twelve hundred”. Why change register half way through?

[¶ Of course, even in the middle ages, educated professionals such as architects, military engineers and accountants would work to greater precision. The Doomsday book (written in mediaeval Latin) has precise census numbers, but these are written in arabic numerals — they are not spelled out.

† The 1928 OED entry for hundred is interesting in this regard. It states that the word derives from the Old Norse, where there were two variants, one indicating 100 and the other 120. Although this latter seems to have been employed relatively rarely in English, it illustrates that ‘a hundred’ was seen as an entity in itself rather than a subdivision of ‘a thousand’. This is also supported by the fact that it takes the indefinite article like ‘dozen’ or ‘score’, whereas ‘ten’ does not.]

  • Makes a lot of assumptions and seeping statements, with no citations, and includes irrelevant material. Just saying that French affords the same usage is the most salient point here, yet it's buried. – AmE speaker Jul 1 '17 at 16:25
  • I have thoroughly revised my answer, trying to clarify my arguments and support them with extensive citations. I have spent some time on this because I find the topic interesting. The view I have formed on the linguistic psychology of enumeration perhaps runs contrary to cultural assumptions, although I would be surprised if it has not been expressed by others before me. I think it deserves reconsideration by @Clare, from whom I would welcome specific criticisms and constructive suggestions. – David Jul 3 '17 at 22:05
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This is partly a matter of context. There's also an implied measure of precision which is quite useful when it's not masked by ambiguity. It also saves a couple of syllables. When high precision is required, this form isn't used.

"In the eighteen hundreds" (in terms of dates) refers to either the entire 19th century, or the first decade, but is more general than a specific year. English rarely refers to dates below two thousand using "thousand": 1066 is normally "ten sixty six", for example. Years (between 1000 and 2000 at least) are always broken into two blocks aloud, each block being a number: "eighteen twelve".

The same phrase used for house numbers (mainly in America where residential roads are longer) is a similarly handy way of referring to a range of houses. The same road may be very different at different numbers so this can be a shorthand for "on Main Street, a nice bit but not the really expensive bit" while also giving a decent idea of the physical location.

Car/motorbike engine sizes in metric are expressed in cc (cubic centimetres, the same as millilitres but often omitted) apart from when their size in litres is an integer. Above roughly 2 litres both forms may be used. "Litre" is sometimes omitted, on common sizes when there's a decimal. Examples: "six fifty", "one litre", "fifteen hundred", "nineteen hundred" or "one point nine", "two litre", "two point four (litre)" or "twenty four hundred".

Other technical uses roughly follow the engine size system. Diffraction gratings, for example, defined by the number of lines per millimetre. Apart from 1000, 2000, 3000 etc. hundreds are always used, even "thirty six hundred".

Distances in engineering below about four metres are often given in hundreds of millimetres (on that scale engineering drawings are in millimetres, they switch to metres for big things in some fields). So you might have a one piece of pipe "thirty six hundred" (mm silent) long, and another "four point two metres".

For road distances the switch from hundreds of metres to kilometres happens at more like two kilometres. But here in Britain where driving distances are expressed in miles, it might switch to miles (rounded to the nearest quarter) instead at around 1200m (3/4 of a mile).

These examples (which I'm sure aren't universal, comments will probably show some variants) demonstrate that it's vague, but native speakers do it naturally and without thinking (knocking off a zero isn't exactly mathematically challenging). In older use this multiplicative notation was more common "three score and ten", "two dozen" etc., perhaps because counting into piles then counting the piles is common and easy to understand without knowing much about large numbers.

The good news is that although it's hard to match a native speaker in this, it matters about as little as possible. A slightly unidiomatic use would go unremarked and quite possible unnoticed, so long as it's comprehensible.

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This Google Ngram two hundred thousand vs. two thousand one hundred shows them about equally common and both declining, perhaps in favor of numbers. I don't know how to compare across all possibilities (one thousand three hundred vs. thirteen hundred, etc.), but in text in books, the two forms are roughly equally common. Writers may choose to use "twelve hundred men" versus "one thousand two hundred men" as the phrase of choice not only for brevity but as a rough estimate when one doesn't know or care to provide an exact number.

Ngram

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    How are the Ngrams relevant? They don't compare likes. – Edwin Ashworth May 30 '17 at 7:33
  • Perhaps they're not. The pasted link also doesn't accord with the actual search. I tried to get just two lines; I will probably delete the post. However, what seems clear is the use of the shorter phrase, which is what the poster asked about. – Xanne May 30 '17 at 7:52
  • I think the real question is, how did expression like "twelve hundred" or "fifteen hundred" come about? Sort of "quatre vente" meaning eighty for the French. – user66974 May 30 '17 at 9:34

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