Liz Wager: Mournful numbers

Liz WagerI love the fact that many words have multiple meanings. This multiplicity sometimes sets up strange resonances or odd mental images, especially if you pick the wrong meaning initially.
The other day I was running a publication workshop and talking about tables and figures, when I got horribly tangled up by the fact that figures can mean either numbers or illustrations. My subconscious was clearly still brooding over my confusion as I read a sonnet (later in bed, I hasten to add, not during the workshop) and wondered what Shakespeare meant by the lines “Return forgetful Muse, and straight redeem, In gentle numbers, time so idly spent.” Surely, I thought, Shakespeare wasn’t thinking about songs (as in “opening numbers”)? That sounded like a much later usage. And it didn’t make sense if he was talking about arithmetical figures. The dictionary came to my rescue, reminding me that numbers could also mean “metrical periods of feet, hence lines, verse” (with the first recorded use in 1588 which sounds as if it might have been Shakespeare himself). 

I Googled a bit and found he’d used the same word in both its meanings in an earlier sonnet, writing: “If I could write the beauty of your eyes, And in fresh numbers number all your graces.” My Googling also revealed that Longfellow, almost 300 years later, used the word numbers to mean verses, when he wrote “Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream.” As soon as I read this, I immediately thought about medical papers. I always advise researchers to write their key findings in words and put the details in the tables. I may even use this quote to remind them. Too many numbers, for me at least, can make a paper mournful. One day I plan to write a scientific paper in iambic pentameters then I can talk about the numbers in numbers and, of course, show the figures in figures. Isn’t English fun?

Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).