No French in this post–this is all about obscure English vocabulary that you can bet Zipf’s Law will bring into your life sooner or later.
I recently wrote a post about what we call in the US 3x5s (pronounced “three by fives”), and that got me thinking about words in English that are formed in similar ways. There are a number of them, and if you can use them, it will definitely add an American flavor to your English.
- 2×4 (pronounced “two by four”): a kind of wooden board that measures about 2 inches by four inches, and about six feet in length. In America, 2x4s are commonly used in the construction of homes and the like.
- 4×4 (pronounced “four by four”): a kind of truck or similar vehicle that can provide power to all four wheels simultaneously. (More traditionally, cars would only power the front axle or the back axle.)
- 8×10 (pronounced “eight by ten”): a particular size of photographic print, measuring eight inches by ten inches.
- 24/7 (pronounced “twenty-four seven”): absolutely constantly. 24 hours in a day, and seven days in a week, so 24/7 is all the time.
- 7-11 (pronounced “seven eleven”): originally the name of a convenience store that was once open from 7 AM to 11 PM. Today you can use it to refer to pretty much any 24-hour convenience store, I think.
- 69 (pronounced “sixty-nine”): a verb referring to a specific sexual act. Consider the relationship between the numbers 6 and 9 and you can probably figure it out for yourself, which will save me from feeling like I have to put a trigger warning on a blog post about numbers.
- soixante-neuf: same thing. Yes, we can use it in English, and if you’re sleeping with people who are educated enough to know what it means, then you probably already know what it means yourself.
- 10-4 (pronounced “ten four”): I heard you, I got your message; there’s also some implication that you agree. Often heard in the contexts 10-4, good buddy, or that’s a big 10-4, or, if you wear a cap with the name of a feed company on the front, or just listened to a lot of AM radio in the 1970s, that’s a big 10-4, good buddy. That’s how we said it when I was a little tyke, at any rate. OK: a teenager.
- .45 (pronounced “forty-five”): a kind of pistol, known for its “stopping power”–that is, if someone is charging you, a shot from one of these things will keep them from moving forward if it hits them. The projectiles are short, but very big around, and heavy. It’s not very accurate at a long distance, but at a short distance, it’s very effective at what it’s intended for.
- .32 (pronounced “thirty-two”): another kind of pistol. They’re also not very accurate, as they usually have a pretty short barrel, and they really don’t have any use other than killing people at close range, as far as I know.
- .36 (pronounced “thirty-six”): another kind of pistol. They sometimes have longer barrels, in which case you can use them to kill people at close range, and also a bit further away.
- .25 (pronounced “twenty-five”): another kind of pistol. I don’t recall ever actually seeing one.
- .22 (pronounced “twenty-two”): another kind of pistol, and also a small-caliber rifle. The bullet is quite small, and unless you get shot in some place really vital–head, heart, an artery–it may not do that much damage. On the other hand, I did once see a young guy who shot himself in the head with one of these–he didn’t die immediately, but he sure as hell died eventually. Again, there is not much that’s actually useful about these things…
You can use the number-by-number construction productively (in the linguistic sense of the word productive, which means that the construction can be used to produce new things) to talk about the sizes of pieces of wood in general. However, if you’re not talking about 2x4s specifically, the context needs to be clear if you want to be understood. The assumption is that the pieces of wood in question will be 6 feet long unless otherwise specified, so if you ask for a 3×6 (pronounced “three by six”) in a lumber yard, people will know what size board to give you. For a version of this kind of construction that is also productive, although quite obscure, see this entry from the Urban Dictionary for a description of how it is used to refer to pairs of male characters in the Gundam Wing anime series.
Having gotten the basics out of the way, here’s a useful expression: to get/be hit with a 2×4. You know what a 2×4 is by now–a solid wooden board. If someone smacks you upside the head with it, you will have been smacked really, really hard. To get/be hit with a 2×4 means to be stunned by something that you’ve learnt.
Here are some real-life examples. This woman wrote on her blog about needing to be forced to face the facts that she was (a) eating too much, and (b) not exercising enough:
This blog post suggests that if you “get hit with a 2×4,” the answer is to just surrender to whatever God’s wishes for you might happen to be:
Here’s a story from the Washington Post (a reputable and very famous American newspaper known for its coverage of national politics) about Chris Christie, describing the experience of the explosion of the Bridgegate scandal during the period before his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination:
Here, a bigwig of the investment world talks about the effects of getting two pieces of bad news about the financial world, one right after the other:
So, now you see why it would, in fact, probably be better to get shot in the leg with one of those tiny little .22s than to get hit in the head with a 2×4. Native speakers of English (or non-native speakers who just like to collect funny words), do you have any other all-number words to add to the list?