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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
Beckham's road to Roman
David Beckham has had "VII" tattooed on his forearm, standing for his favoured number 7 shirt. What is it that makes Roman numerals seem important?

As David Beckham watched the tattooist's needle inking his arm, perhaps he pondered his choice for Roman numerals rather than the more usual Arabic numbers.

By the intellectual standards of the locker room, Beckham is certainly showing lofty ambitions

Stephen Bayley
After all, what does having "VII" on his arm signify that having "7" would not?

Could it be that this is just the latest example of Roman numerals being used because, for some reason, they seem to lend an air of importance and significance?

Enough ink for a phone number?
Consider some other examples... Despite their Greek origins, the Olympic Games are always known by their Roman number. So for instance, the Sydney Games in 2000 were the Games of the XXVIIth Olympiad, helping to give the process the desired air of importance and antiquity.

Monarchs too are known by their Roman number. Elizabeth 2 somehow does not seem as fitting as Elizabeth II, which says nothing of Louis XIV or Henry VIII.

And as broadcaster and author Paul Lewis - who has a longstanding interest in Roman numerals - points out, the same often applies to the naming of eldest sons in American families where successive generations have the same name, eg Loudon Wainwright III.

Air of dignity

Style expert Stephen Bayley says using Roman numerals, particularly when used in the Times Roman typeface, does tend to lend a certain dignity. And that includes Beckham.

"To use Roman numerals in clocks and watches does tend to say: 'I'm a bit cleverer than you are.'

Bayley: It does lend an air of dignity
"By the intellectual standards of the locker room, Beckham is certainly showing lofty ambitions. It's a statement of sophistication but, at the same time, by having the tattoo on his inner arm, he is keeping quiet about it.

"There's also an interesting tension between the two sorts of statements he's making - the vulgarian taste for a tattoo and the relative sophistication of its content.

"Perhaps it's a devious device to stop the Koreans from knowing what position he's supposed to be playing."

Credit where it's due

Perhaps one of the most notable areas where people are likely to come across Roman numerals is in TV and film credits, where the convention is not to spell out what year something was made.

It is a convention which has extended even to BBC News Online - witness the MMII at the bottom of this page.

The practice is believed to have started in an attempt to disguise the age of films or television programmes. In other words, the opposite of claiming an undeserved antiquity.

Big Ben: 12.17 just wouldn't be the same
But the process of trying to work out what the dates actually mean - MCMLXXXVIII was a particularly bumper year - has, thanks to comedian Rich Hall, been given its own name - xiidigitation.

Rather like prisoners scratching a tally of days on a wall, one advantage of Roman numerals is that they are easily upgradeable simply by adding an extra I.

A trick which the bosses of Apple Computers missed when devising upgrades for their new Roman numeralled operating system, Mac OS X. New versions of the software are taking the conventional approach - i.e. Mac OS X v10.1.

As Becks himself might say, Mac OS X. vX.I might have been just that bit more... well... posh.

Your comments:

Should the whole England team have V-I tatooed on their arms to remind them of the victory in Germany?
Adrian Tapping, England

Are you sure that the number seven is what David intended to have tattooed on his arm? I suspect that he wanted "Viictoria" before the tattooist politely pointed out the correct spelling.
Neil, England

It's my opinion that Victoria actually decided on the VII version, after all V is for Victoria and the two I's probably mean Brooklyn and baby to be!
Kate, U.S.

It occurred to me once that it would be fun to own a digital wall clock or wristwatch that displays the time in roman numerals rather than conventional arabic. The display would have to be ludicrously long, but that would be the point - to use modern technology in a patently inefficient manner.
Marcus Stubbles, USA

Why is the Roman numeral 4 always IIII on clock and watch faces when the romans 'spelt' it IV?
Tim Baggaley, England

Does VII do it for you? If not, what number would you have chosen? Send your comments using the form below.

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See also:

28 Nov 00 | UK
More trouble than you'd ink
22 Mar 02 | Arts
Body art goes on show
28 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Beckham's tattoo misspelt
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