Counters and calculation
Posted: 03 August 2008 11:16 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Working recently with some mediaeval numismatic material, I found myself considering the word “counter”, as applied nowadays to disc-shaped objects used in games (draughts/checkers, tiddlywinks, ludo). In the Middle Ages, arithmetic reckoning was carried out by moving such disc-shaped objects about on a marked board: this is, I suppose, what gave them the appellation “counters” (the counters I know, from the Crusader period in Israel—12th-13th centuries—are discs of lead, usualy about 10-12 mm in diameter, and weighing around 3 g). They are also referred to (by numismatists, at any rate) as “jetons”. Jeter means “to throw” or “to cast” in French—a clue to the origin of the expression (now, I think, archaic) “to cast accounts”.
Counting-boards fell into disuse with the introduction of the abacus and of numerical calculation ("pen-reckoning").
Perhaps those with OED access can tell us the earliest cited use of the terms “counter”, in this sense, and “jeton”?
Wikipedia has an interesting short article, beautifully illustrated, s.v. “jeton”. It mentions the use, by the Romans, of small stones (calculi) for a similar purpose - hence “to calculate”.

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Posted: 04 August 2008 05:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Yes, it was still common when I was a lad (1950s) to hear of shopkeepers, etc casting their accounts.

From OED:

counter, n3

I. 1. Anything used in counting or keeping account: 

a. A round piece of metal, ivory, or other material, formerly used in performing arithmetical operations. Obs.

c1310 Know Thyself 38 in E.E.P. (1862) 131 Sitte doun and take countures rounde.. And for vche a synne lay thou doun on Til thou thi synnes haue souyght vp and founde.

b. In later times used chiefly in keeping an account or reckoning in games of chance, esp. cards. (These counters are of various shapes, according to convenience.)

1579 TOMSON Calvin’s Serm. Tim. 105/2 They cast it into the winde, they played with it as with a counter.

c. Also, applied to the ‘pieces’ or ‘men’ used in playing shovelboard, chess, draughts and other games; also fig.

1605 R. ARMIN Foole upon F. (1880) 21 All alone he playd at slide groate, as his manner was: peeces or counters he had none.

jeton

1. = jetton

A piece of metal, ivory, or other material, bearing an inscription or device, formerly used as a counter in casting up accounts and in card-playing. Also applied to medals or tokens of various kinds.

1933 H. G. WELLS Shape of Things to Come II. §11. 229 Today our museums contain hundreds of thousands of specimens of these improvised European coins of lead, nickel, tin and all sorts of alloys, jetons or checks of wood. 1969 R. C. BELL Board & Table Games II. x. 138 Many of these casting-counters, or jetons, simulated coins, and cause difficulty to collectors of medieval money.

2.  A metal disc used, chiefly in France, instead of a coin for insertion in a public telephone box. Also attrib.

1942 E. PAUL Narrow St. xi. 82 In order for a client to use the phone he had to buy from her a metal disc or jeton.

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Posted: 05 August 2008 08:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Those counting stones are also the basis of “calculus” as a branch of mathematics, as discussed
here.

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Posted: 05 August 2008 11:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Perhaps a dumb question—but are counting boards the origin of the word “counter” as in “countertop” or sales counter?

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Posted: 05 August 2008 04:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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JimWilton - 05 August 2008 11:15 AM

Perhaps a dumb question—but are counting boards the origin of the word “counter” as in “countertop” or sales counter?

The AHD entry for ‘counter’ would seem to suggest so.

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Posted: 05 August 2008 07:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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perhaps the counting-board was incorporated in the table across which the shopkeeper sold his wares, in the same way as a till will be somewhere on the counter nowadays. That’s where it would be needed most.

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Posted: 06 August 2008 02:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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In the States, “countertop” is also universally used in preference to the British “worktop”, even in a domestic kitchen environment.

That usage is spreading gradually in Britain, I wouldn’t be surprised if “worktop” were totally supplanted by “countertop” in ten years’ time.

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Posted: 06 August 2008 07:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Another related word is “bank” which had an early meaning as the “table, counter or place of business” of a money changer.

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Posted: 06 August 2008 09:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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An identical usage is found in Greek, of course, where the Greek word for table, which gave English the words for trapeze and trapezoid, also gave Greeks their word for bank.

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Posted: 07 August 2008 06:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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According to wikipedia the Japanese abacus, the soroban means counting tray. It is from Chinese suanpan (sounds similar but no etymology available) which was contemporaneous with the Roman abacus but no one knows who developed it first or got it from whom.
I remember seeing an old bank teller using an abacus with amazing speed in a modern bank in Singapore 20 years ago.

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Posted: 07 August 2008 06:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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My grandfather, after a visit to Hong Kong c.1978, told me of visiting an electronics store that was wall-to-wall with calculators and adding machines. And sales were being calculated on an abacus.

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