Waiting too long. And in pain (Mistake #79)

Okay. We’ve had a few silly posts about numbers before – see here and here to save you the trouble of searching for them – and another is long overdue.

77 years. That’s how long we “waited” for a British man to win Wimbledon. So said The Times, so said the BBC, and so said The Telegraph, once Andy Murray had triumphed magnificently almost a month ago (already?) on the green (in patches) grass of Centre Court, SW19.

The Mirror went further. “77 years of tennis hurt” were ended by the Scot’s victory, they said.

Was it really 77 years since a Brit won Wimbledon? Yes “ … unless you think women are people”, as Chloe Angyal’s 20,000-times-retweeted tweet famously stated, in a witty swipe at those who’d made the depressing error of forgetting Virginia Wade.

Was it really 77 years since a male Brit won Wimbledon? Yes. It was in 1936 that Fred Perry beat Gottfried von Cramm 6-1 6-1 6-0 in the gentleman’s final.

But was it really a 77-year wait? Did our grandparents show up at Centre Court the day after Perry won and start tapping their watches, waiting for a British player to walk out and beat some hapless non-Brit? And were those intervening years spent in ‘hurt’? Did tennis fans start to collapse in the streets, doubled up in agony, clutching their appendices and gammy knees? “Oh my, Mabel! The 77 years of hurt must have started!”

No. Fred Perry was champion of Wimbledon until July 1937, when Don Budge of the USA beat the previous year’s runner-up in straight sets. (Perry was excluded from defending his title. Interesting story – here for a quick summary.)

Then, and only then, I suppose you could argue that the pain may have started (an American taking ‘our’ title? Ouch!). So: 76 years. But did the wait start then too? Well, I suppose so, but surely you could argue that, as a British player couldn’t potentially reclaim the title until 1938, surely it would’ve been another year before this ‘wait’ – this expectation – could really begin? A 75-year wait then? We had to wait a year in order to start waiting again? And could we really be waiting – in pain or otherwise – for a British victor during the 1940-45 period, when no tournament took place, and we had far more pressing things to worry about?

Okay, I’m being a bit silly and very pedantic, but I’m also trying to scrabble around for some precision and provide some points to ponder. Because as we’re so used to working with words, sometimes it pays to think a bit more about numbers when we use them among our words. It’s easier to err than you might think …

I’m reminded of one of my acquaintances, who recently remarked to me that, so far, they were enjoying their fortieth year … and this was a few weeks after their 40th birthday. A commenter on a previous thread pointed out a similar mistake made by his wife. It’s very easy to slip up between ordinals and cardinals. But your first year takes you from birth to one, and your second year from one to two … so it’s your forty-first year that takes you from forty to forty-one. Perhaps our problem is we don’t use ordinals very much in English, unlike say the Russians, who reference it regularly when telling the time – 8.20 being rendered as ‘twenty minutes of the ninth (hour)’, for example.

Another mistake I’ve seen is using substraction to calculate a period of years between two dates. That 1940 to 1945 period of no Wimbledon which I mentioned above? Six years, not five. Take care …

I’ll do a sensible post about percentages and fractions one day – they’ve been known to trip the best of us up – but meanwhile, waste no more time on me and my pedantry and go relive that magic moment instead …

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