Although the phrase, ‘a hundred,’ or ‘one hundred,’ is associated with the number 100 nowadays, this was not always the case in old Germanic and Nordic languages. For these peoples, their system of counting revolved around the number ‘twelve’ instead of ‘ten.’ The root elements that make up the word ‘hundred’ loosely translate to ‘reckoning in ten.’ For modern people, our hundred is 10×10 (equaling 100), whereas for old Germanic and old Norse language speakers, their ‘hundred’ (or hundrath) was the sum of ten groups of twelve (10×12=120). Curiously, 100 came to be known as the ‘Short Hundred,’ whereas 120 was labeled the ‘Long Hundred.’ Reference to 120 being a hundred thankfully began going out of fashion in Germanic and Norse languages around the 15th century. Nevertheless, by then countless written works had been produced by cultures that considered 120 to be a hundred. Therefore, readers of translated medieval texts should beware—references to a ‘hundred’ could mean 120 instead of 100.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped title page section from One hundred Years of the Presbyterian Church of Frankford, Thomas Murphy, 1869, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- Njal’s Saga, written anonymously in the 13th century, and translated by Robert Cook. London: Penguin Classics, 2001.