Editor’s Note: This item was misfiled on receipt and has finally emerged. Better late than never.
The advent of a new millennium may well have caused much rejoicing, but the glee is not quite universal. Some people have been disadvantaged, among them being those whose livings depend on work connected with Roman numerals. The abrupt change from nine letters to only two, identical at that, has obvious implications for these tradesmen – this being a largely male preserve – who are usually employed on a piecework basis. In Britain, not all the affected workers are represented by a single body. To date there has been no comment from the largest group, the Monumental Masons, which ironically has a monogram similar to the Roman letters for the year 2000. Despite its attempts to achieve unity, the industry remains fragmented.
Dick Spratt, spokesman for the Worshipful Order of Gravers (the WOGs), which claims to be the oldest guild in the UK, voiced his co-workers’ distress. “This is a calamity,” he said. “My members’ aspirations have been steam-rollered. It was bad enough at the end of the previous year, when we fell from MCMXCVIII to MCMXCIX. That was a drop to seven letters. Now, with the reduction to just MM, the bottom has fallen out. We are devastated.” His comments were endorsed by a representative of the Venerable Institute of Licensed Engravers (VILE).
A wider view was expressed by Stanley Nibb, head of the Fraternal Amalgamation of Romanic Technicians, which discourages use of an acronym. “It’s history repeating itself,” he moaned. “The same thing happened at the end of the first millennium, which came shortly after the incursion of Arabic numbers. There was unrest all over Europe, as people were thrown out of work. It’s a matter of record that this came to a head in Naples, where protesting craftsmen drenched the town hall floor with ninety gallons of ferret stew. Things improved a few centuries later, as we approached the mid-point, when we were able to make extensive use of the D, which like the C is a hard one to carve. Then we had our halcyon days in the run-up to MM, but now, as honorary Chief Chiseller of England, I am pessimistic.”
The Europe-wide umbrella organisation, the Brotherhood of Engravers of Roman Numerals (BERN) has, coincidentally, its headquarters in the Swiss capital. Now largely German-staffed – though in deference to tradition communicating in English – this august alliance used to be French-dominated, though even then used its anglicised title with the abbreviation BERNE (Brotherhood of European Roman Numerals Engravers). In fact there was a two-hundred-year battle – the Initials War – over the name, the conflict being enshrined in Germanic guild lore, where it is pithily termed ‘Der zweihundertjährige Kampf um die Anfangsbuchstaben unserer Genossenschaft.’
In charge at Bern is part-timer Manfred Kutt. With the hotheadedness we have come to associate with the Swiss, leading local barber Herr Kutt gave his assessment. “It is inconvenient,” he said. “However, we have not yet exhausted all possibilities. There are untapped markets. I understand that this is the Jewish year 5,760-odd, and that the Chinese chronology offers similar openings. If one looks at it objectively, this could be an opportunity for the more enterprising spirits in our fellowship. We might be able to restore the use of the old Roman bars and brackets as multipliers. Obviously, those not willing or able to embrace new concepts will fall by the wayside. On the whole, I am concerned but not downhearted.”
This looks like a classic case of some winners, some losers. Time will tell.
* * *