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Life begins at four-X: Forty

01:00 Sat 12th Jan 2002 |

Q. So, what's with forty

A. That old saw about life beginning at forty is just one of the many examples of the use of two-score in English. However, most instances of forty have more to do with the suggestion of a large number, and a fair few instances of its use in this sense are found in the scriptures.

Q. It's a Biblical thing, then

A. Examples from both the Old and New Testaments are that that Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights up on the mountain when receiving the Ten Commandments; the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens for 40 days; the rain which caused the great Flood fell for 40 days and another 40 passed before Noah opened up the ark; Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Wilderness and he was seen once again 40 days after the Resurrection. The fact that it appears with some frequency in the Bible has given the number a special status in secular life, too.

Q. And in English law

A. Old-English law took the special standing of the number and applied it to various legal matters. For instance, the period within which a fine for manslaughter should be paid was 40 days; the privilege of the right of sanctuary - which allowed fugitives to seek sanctuary on church land - was 40 days; a widow was allowed to remain in her deceased husband's house for 40 days; and a stranger had 40 days to be enrolled in a tithing.

Q. Tithing

A. A system of self-regulation introduced into England by King Canute (c. 995-1035), whereby all free men and boys over the age of 12 should join a tithing, a group of 10 all of whom bore responsibility for the good behaviour of the other members of the group.

Q. And quarantine

A. The term comes from quaranta, the Italian for forty, and it originally referred to a period of 40 days, the length of time which any ship suspected of carrying an infectious disease was obliged to lie outside the harbour. Now, of course, the term can be applied to any period of isolation.

Q. What about the Roaring Forties

A. This is a sailor's term for the stormy latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south, where strong westerly winds prevail.

Q. '...Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties...'

A. Familiar to many from the Shipping Forecast, Forties is an area of sea between north-east Scotland and south-west Norway, so-called because the depth of water is over 40 fathoms.

Q. What's Eurospeak for forty, then


Danish: fyre

Dutch/Flemish: veertig

Finnish: nelj�kymment�

French: quarante

German: vierzig

Greek: seranda

Italian: quaranta

Portuguese: quarenta

Spanish: cuarenta

Swedish: fyrtio

Q. And elsewhere in Europe


Albanian: kat�rdhet�

Bulgarian: chet�redeset

Czech: ctyricet

Estonian: nelik�mmend

Hungarian: negyven

Latvian: cetrdesmit

Lithuanian: keturiasde'imts

Norwegian: firti

Polish: czterdziesci

Romanian: patruzeci

Russian: s�rok

Serbo-Croat: cetrdeset

Turkish: kirk

and Esperanto (just in case): kvardek

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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