In this blogposting…
*AGM XVIII: The Wandering AGM
*Life in France: The Case of the Nonsensical Numbers

In order to accommodate the preferences and predilections of various truckshunters, and (more importantly) to accept a generous invitation from Nev, I’ve changed the date (again) and venue of AGM XVIII. It will now take place at 1100 on Wednesday 25 August at the Tanfield Railway. Nev has promised us a train ride (like last year). And, as I said in the last blogposting, I’ll be bringing along a special guest. So…

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

(Please get in touch if you’d like a lift to the Railway.)


‘Your Honour, I come before you today to plead a very special case.’

‘I can see that, Mr Robinson, from the peculiar garb with which you have seen fit to adorn your not inconsiderable frame. Why the rat’s nest peruke, vermilion frock-coat and purple velvet pantaloons, if I may be so bold as to ask?’

‘You did not mention my crimson sparkling Dorothy shoes, Your Honour’.

‘No, Mr Robinson, I didn’t. Believe me - it was not a deliberate mistake.’

‘Your Honour does not approve?’

‘It’s like looking at a pantomime poster, Mr Robinson. I’ve a good mind to have you for contempt - except that your ruse has worked and I am now desperately curious to ascertain what kind of case necessitates an outfit that makes you look like a cross between Sgt Pepper and Danny la Rue.’

(Cough) ‘Indeed, Your Honour’.

(Wistful sigh) ‘Enough of this frippery, Mr Robinson. I don’t have all day. Please make your submission before we all die of levity. What’s this case all about?’

‘It’s about numbers, Your Honour.’

‘So far, so good. Continue.’

‘Your Honour, the whole world knows how blessed the English are. Shakespeare, the White Cliffs, the Queen, lawn tennis, Tesco...’

‘Yes, yes, yes - get on with it.’

‘...and the world’s most sensible language, Your Honour.’

‘Sensible, Mr Robinson? You call a language where aisle, isle and I’ll all rhyme, and where who rhymes with shoe which doesn’t rhyme with woe, sensible?’

‘I most certainly do, Your Honour - notwithstanding Your Honour’s brilliantly erudite examples of occasional waywardness in our native tongue. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that there exists a language wherein such vagaries are very much the rule rather than the exception.’

(Gasps from the public gallery) ‘I need not remind you, Mr Robinson, that this is the Court of Common Sense and that your case would have to be a strong one indeed to top the noisome, though charming, gintraps into which the sacred language of the Bard, the Book of Common Prayer and Harry Potter lures the unwary foreigner.’

‘I believe, Your Honour, that I have a very strong case indeed. I speak, after all, of a language in which sensible means sensitive, occasion means second-hand, where one is not merely pleased to meet someone but ‘enchanted’, where one is never merely ‘sorry‘ but 'desolate' - a language, moreover, which has no words for moth, breakfast or love.’

(More gasps) ‘Do you mean Welsh, Mr Robinson?’

(Laughter) ‘No, Your Honour. I have in mind a language even more lacking in Common Sense than Welsh or even (cough)...Dutch.’

(Howls of incredulity) ‘Surely, Mr Robinson, you don’t mean...(cough cough)...er...I hesitate to say even the word...’

‘Yes, Your Honour. French.’

(Noisy commotion in the Public Gallery) ‘Are you seriously suggesting, Mr Robinson, that that grotesque combination of nasal mumbling, bestial grunts and grossly impolite shoulder-shrugging actually constitutes a language?’

‘I’m afraid so, Your Honour’.

‘Silence in Court! You mean a real language, Mr Robinson. With words? And punctuation?’

‘Yes, Your Honour’.

‘Mr Robinson...it is only my macabre curiosity which prevents me from having you ejected from this Court at once - or at least having you restrained in the manacles and strait-jacket I noticed you wearing at the club we both attend on Thursday nights.’

‘Er...yes, Your Honour. But please bear with me.’

‘That’s what you said to me on Thursday night.’
(Murmurs of approval from the Gallery) ‘Your Honour, I believe I can prove beyond any conceivable doubt at all that the so-called language of our Gallic neighbours (may Heaven preserve the English Channel) raises the level of total linguistic illogicality to previously unknown, let alone unscaled, heights!!’

(Cries of ‘No! Never!’) ‘Silence in Court! Mr Robinson, I have no doubts about your sincerity, your competence or your intellectual ability. You are, after all, English. However - and along with several members of the Public Gallery - I feel the need for a glass or two of some fortifying liquor. Beaujolais, perhaps. (Laughter) Burgundy. (More laughter) Cognac. (Guffaws) I think a ten-minute recess in order...’


‘I trust you feel suitably fortified, Your Honour.’

‘I most certainly do, young feller-me-lad. It’s amazing what a snifter of fine Armagnac, accompanied by a macaron de chocolat or two, does for the old grey cells, as Miss Marple would say.’

(Cough) ‘Er, yes Your Honour. May I then proceed with my case?’

‘Yes you young whippersnapper. That’s how fortified I am.’

(Polite cough) ‘The case centres around numbers, Your Honour.’
‘You mean one, two, three and so on?’

‘I do Your Honour. All languages have numbers and must therefore decide what to call them. As Your Honour so astutely cites, our beloved language here in the sceptr’d isle counts logically in tens - presumably because that’s how many fingers we have.’

‘If you include thumbs, surely, Mr Robertson.’

‘Indeed yes, Your Honour - if you include thumbs.’

‘We don’t really count in tens though, do we, Mr Robbins? What about eleven and twelve?’

‘Again, Your Honour’s prodigious perspicacity tries to catch me out. (Laughter) It’s true, Your Honour, that we have separate numbers for ten plus one and ten plus two. But these are, after all, the exception that proves the rule. After twelve, we name the next few numbers as simple variations of three-ten, four-ten, five-ten and so on.’

‘Ah yes I see that. Thirteen, fourteen. Hmmm.’

‘Yes, Your Honour. Up to twenty, which is a variation of two-tens - just as thirty is three-tens, forty is four-tens - and so on up to ninety.’

Nine-tens. Indeed, Mr Robson, perfectly logical. Awash with Common Sense and easy learnability.’

‘Absolutely, Your Honour. And the numbers in-between are easily constructed, even if the speaker does not already know them. Thirty-seven, fifty-one, seventy-six, ninety-four.’

‘Linguistic perfection, Mr Roberts.’

‘Linguistic perfection for which we should be much more grateful than we are, Your Honour. Especially when one considers how our benighted - not to say innumerate - neighbours across the Channel choose to express themselves.’

‘Come, come, Mr Robot. It can’t be that bad. Judging from the way my au pair talks - that is to say, endlessly and without any apparent need to draw breath - the French have their language (if nothing else) worked out. Everything runs together or disappears up the nose - or even, in moments of extreme mental agitation, both. Amelie makes every sentence sound like one continuous word.’

‘That, Your Honour, is a symptom of terminal semantic confusion rather than the sensible and rather humbling neatness to which we have become accustomed.’

‘Hmmm. To be honest, I have often wondered what the way the French talk is a symptom of. I’ve always assumed it’s because they lost the 2012 Olympic bid. Or that their president is shorter - and more vindictive and avaricious - than even Napoleon was. Or perhaps that the deplorable Oscar Wilde is buried in Paris.’

‘No, Your Honour. It is none of those things, understandable though they all are. It is rather an outward sign of confusion and long-winded indecision.’


‘As I said earlier, Your Honour, we are blessed with a language that has separate names for the numbers up to twelve. After that, everything runs smoothly and predictably.’

(Applause) ‘Yes…’

‘The French, on the other hand, have separate names for numbers up to sixteen.’

‘Sixteen? Why sixteen?’

‘I don’t know, Your Honour. And, I suspect, neither do they. After sixteen, the next three numbers are what you would expect. Ten-seven, ten-eight and ten-nine.’

‘They finally come to their senses, then?’

‘No, Your Honour. Their word for twenty comes as a bolt from the blue. It is wholly unrelated to their words for two or ten.’

‘What is it?’

(Writes it down) ‘This is it, Your Honour.’


Vah, Your Honour’

Vah??? But that means that almost every letter in this word is silent or mispronounced!’

‘Yes, Your Honour. It has that in common with most other French words, though. They may have lost the Olympic bid because their word for a hurdle is….(writes this down too and passes it to the Judge) ‘h-a-i-e’’


Eh, Your Honour’.

‘I said ‘Hay’.’

‘No, Your Honour. The word is pronounced ‘eh’.

‘So the h, the a and the i are all silent???’

‘Yes, Your Honour’.

‘Good Heavens, Mr Robeson. This is indeed serious. So what happens after twenty?’

‘They say ‘twenty and one’.’

‘How very English!’

(Laughter) ‘Insofar as it goes, yes Your Honour. After that, though, they miss out the ‘and’.’


‘Nobody knows, Your Honour. The numbers then continue in a gratifyingly Anglo-Saxon way, Your Honour. Like us, they have separate words for thirty, forty, fifty and sixty.’

‘And seventy?’

‘No, Your Honour. Seventy is sixty-ten.’

(Murmurs from the Gallery) ‘Which presumably makes seventy-one something like sixty-eleven!!!’

(Laughter) ‘Yes, Your Honour.’

‘Are you being entirely serious, Mr Robertsfield? A country which aspires to possess railways and contraceptive machines, the country that built the Eiffel Tower and the guillotine, has to say sixty-seventeen for seventy-seven??’

‘Indeed it does, Your Honour.’

‘Perhaps another reason for their Olympic bid failure.’

‘Indeed, Your Honour. And after sixty-nineteen it gets even more bizarre.’

‘Is that possible?’

‘Yes, Your Honour. They have no word for eighty, either!’

‘Perhaps, being French, they rarely need to count that far, Mr Robocop.’

(Laughter) ‘For whatever reason, Your Honour, they have to use four-twenties for eighty.’

(Guffaws) ‘So what is, say, eighty-six?’

Four-twenties six.’

(Loud guffaws) ‘And ninety?’

Four-twenties ten, Your Honour.’

‘Silence in Court!!! And ninety-eight?’

Four twenties ten eight.’

‘So almost every time a French person says a number, the conversation has to stop to give everyone time to work out what it is!!’

‘Precisely, Your Honour. If I said that my beloved parents were aged four-twenties three and sixty sixteen, even you would need a short recess to ascertain their ages, Your Honour.’

‘How old are they, Mr Robroy?’

‘Eighty-three and seventy-six, Your Honour.’


‘You’re welcome, Your Honour. Er...I’m afraid to say that there are further complicating factors, though.’

Further complicating factors is not a phrase I am particularly anxious to hear at the moment, Mr Ribbentrop. I think you have already made a watertight case that the French language’s system of number-names lacks the Common Sense of a boiled parsnip. However, I believe that the Court would rather enjoy hearing any evidence you may have that the language of Maurice Chevalier and Joan of Arc can get any more ludicrous than that which you have described.’

‘It’s a simple matter, Your Honour. To the French, any sequence of numbers is itself a number.’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘For example, Your Honour, we say, in English, that Louis XVI was (alas) executed in seventeen ninety-two. We divide the year-name into easily quoted chunks. Seventeen and ninety-two.’


‘The French do not. To them, the year was one thousand seven hundred four-twenties twelve.’

‘It was?’

‘Yes, Your Honour.’

'I’m not surprised that the revolution was so bloody.’

‘Indeed, Your Honour. And George Orwell’s seminal work Ninteeen Eighty Four becomes One Thousand Nine Hundred Four Twenties Four - which is a rather less catchy title.’

‘Much less catchy! So the sainted Mrs Thatcher came to power in…?’

One thousand nine hundred sixty ten nine, Your Honour.’

‘I’m getting a headache, Mr Rattenburg…’

‘When telephones became popular, Your Honour, the French were presented with a real quandary. Whereas we would quote the number of London Transport’s Enquiry service as simply two two two one two three four, the French would have to say two million two hundred twenty and one thousand two hundred thirty four.’

(Gales of laughter) ‘And is that what they say, Mr Richardson???’

‘Fortunately no, Your Honour. The French Post Office saved the day by rendering telephone numbers as a set of double-digits. This means that, in France, the number I just quoted is actually spoken as two twenty-two twelve thirty-four.’

(Judge collapses in tears of laughter) ‘Yes, I can see how that makes it so much simpler!!!!’

‘I rest my case, Your Honour.’ (Hardly audible above the commotion of laughter)

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


Hildie said...

Well, that started my day off with a smile or three!! Brilliant posting, monsieur! I'm not kidding you .... you're really clever!

Ian Robinson said...

Thanks Hildie. I wasn't joking, either! The French themselves even realise how daft the system is; some of them still use the (banned) words for seventy, eighty and ninety introduced by Napoleon - septante, huitante and nonante. So there are TWO systems operating side-by-side...

Sid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellie said...

iesa griest (y'sa grace, to you and me)- a mention of that language of Wales....
Now there have been times in my life when I have questioned my intelligence level but ....one thing I have ALWAYS been right about - Ian is EXCEPTIONALLY clever and a brilliant writer....However, I'm cross as I can't make the next AGM as the date has been changed to a working day - drat!....and I've never been to the Tanfield Railway - I'm off to bed to cry into my pillow ....