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The Journal Of The InnKeeper
Ranty Lessons by Joreth
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18th-Jun-2012 03:38 pm - Words For Small Sets
demure, sad, polite, boxed in, Misty in Box

Today's post is pretty light.  I saw this on XKCD today and had to comment.  Because of the fuzzy nature of the terms, everyone uses words like these differently, so, yeah, this is a pretty good assumption to make if you don't know the individual's specific use of the terms.

But for those who care what *I* mean when I use these terms, this is what I mean:

A couple - 2-3
A Few - 3-4
A Handful - 4-6
Several - 6-9



The words are still fuzzy, because if I knew an exact number, I would use it.  The terms are intended (the way I use them) to indicate an unknown, a certain flexibility.  Even when I want things to be exact, fuzzy words are still necessary, as not everything is a known quantity but estimates can be made.

So, several years ago (that's somewhere between 6 and 9 years ago, because I can't remember exactly how long, but I'm positive it's more than 5), I had a boyfriend who asked me to hang out one night.  I told him that I had some work to do on my computer that would take a "coupla hours", but he was welcome to come over at any point and I would hang out with him when the work was done.  At exactly 2 hours, he pitched a fit that I wasn't done yet.  So ensued an argument over the definition of the word "couple".  He didn't believe me that the word could indicate a flexibility in time and challenged me to look it up.  So I got out my Webster's Dictionary and, sure enough, right there in the definition, it said "two or three".

Now, I get why he wanted the word "couple" to mean exactly two.  When we talk about people who are a couple, it means they are two people who form a single romantic unit (with certain implications about the nature of their relationship).  More than two people is some other word.  And I want to keep it that way, for clarity.  But then there are times when we need a word to give an estimation of measurement that is not precise.  If anyone wants to take on the task of changing the social lexicon to remove "couple" as that fuzzy word and replace it with something else, I'll gladly use it once everyone understands what I mean.  Until then, it's officially "couple", whether we like it or not.

So, because "couple" always meant 2-ish, "few", to me, had to mean something other than the same thing as "couple", so as to not confuse the matter further.  So I made that 3-ish.  So when I say "few", I always mean "more than a couple, but smaller than a handful".  That requires me to define "handful".

I'm a huge fan of the Clan of the Cave Bear series, and I have been since I was a small child.  Seriously, I read that massive tome in first grade.  In both the book and the movie, the main character, Ayla, is a Homo Sapien living with a clan of Neanderthals.  The Neanderthals have limited brain power, and one of the ways that is exhibited is in their ability to count.  They can count to three, roughly, but after that they have to use words like "few" and "many".  Their special holy men can count higher, but with a lot of difficulty.  Their holiest of holy men can count to ten.

So, Ayla, being the inquisitive Homo Sapien that she is, keeps asking questions that make her holy man, Creb, uncomfortable.  As a way to distract her, he figures he'd confound her with the concept of counting.  So he takes a pile of small stones and compares one stone to one finger, then two stones to two fingers, certain that this brain puzzle will have her occupied all day.  Except Ayla grasps the concept immediately.  So he shows her 5 stones, and she matches her five fingers to each stone and holds up "five".  Amazed, he puts out 10 stones.  Instead of laboriously counting each of her 10 fingers to the stones, she lumps them into two piles of 5, grabs each pile up in each hand, then raises both hands to show him "ten".  She then makes another 2 piles of 5 and grabs two piles at a time, lets them go, grabs the other two piles, then holds up "ten", closes her fingers, and holds up "ten" again, indicating 20.  She uses literal handfuls of stones to indicate the number "5" for her five fingers.  Creb is so shocked and amazed that Ayla grasped the counting so easily in her first try and swept past even his ability to count, that he puts the stones away and tells her never to tell anyone of the lesson.

So, that's the backstory for why I define a handful as 5-ish.  Whenever I hear the word "handful", I actually picture a hand grabbing something.  If we're talking about things that can't be held in the hand, like time or people, it means 5, but if I meant exactly 5, I would have said 5.  So, because "a handful" is a fuzzy word, it means "around 5", which makes it 4-6 because 4 and 6 are "around 5".  Any lower than 4 and we get into "a few", and any higher than 6 and it becomes unbalanced with 4 being the lower limit.  Now, if we're talking about something that can be held in the hand, like sand or flour, then I mean an actual handful, and I might say something like "one of my handfuls" to indicate a small handful.

Now that I have an upper limit for "handful", I can define "several", which is more than a handful.  So, by that definition, it needs to be 6 or more.  I'm not entirely sure why I stop before 10, except that once we get into double digits, "several" just seems too small to cover it.  Not on this chart is "a dozen", which, of course, is 12, except that a baker's dozen is 13, so, to me, "a dozen" is 12-13.  But that leaves 10-11 uncovered.  And I don't think I have a word for that range.  Huh, I never noticed that before!

Then I start adding fuzzy words to each other, like "a few dozen" and "a couple of handfuls", just to make things even more fun!



So, there ya go - fuzzy measurements by Joreth!
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