How Much Is One Score?

Lincoln Memorial 1809430 1280 Credit: [Mark Thomas/Pixabay]

You may have heard someone refer to a score as a quantity and wondered what it means. A score is 20. Although people don’t use the term much anymore, you can find examples of it in literature and history.

Where Did “Score” As 20 Come From?

The first use of the word “score” to refer to 20 items goes back to around 1100. “Score” was a term for counting herds of sheep or cattle. Shepherds or cattle hands would count 20 of the livestock and make a mark on a stick to indicate that they had counted 20 sheep or cows. Counting by scores allowed the livestock hands to keep up with large quantities of cattle or sheep without losing count.


The Origin of the Word “Score”


The word “score” comes from the Old Norse word “skor,” which meant to put a notch on something. The people who took care of livestock actually made notches on a stick to help them remember how many cows they had counted. That’s why the word “score” came to represent the number 20.


Ancient Counting Systems


From the ancient world to the Middle Ages, people used different counting systems, much like we use twos, fives and tens to count today. For example, counting by dozens is a throwback to older counting systems.


Other ancient counting systems include Roman numerals, which you’ll often encounter when you watch old movies. For example, a movie made in 1938 may show the year as MCMXXXVIII, with each letter of the Roman number representing a different value. 


Uses of Scores in Old Texts 


We can find counting by scores in the Bible, as well as in other texts. In the Bible, you can encounter counts of scores in older translations like the King James Version. One example of counting by scores in the Bible includes Exodus 15:27. Here the Israelites encountered 70 palm trees, or “threescore and ten palm trees.”


You can also come across the word “score” to refer to 20 of something in famous literature like the plays of Shakespeare. In

Macbeth, an old man says, “Threescore and ten I can remember well.” What he means is that he can remember the last 70 years of his life.

Scores in Famous Speeches


You can find examples of American speakers using the word “score” to represent 20 of something. Using that method of counting allows the speaker to make a point that sounds like something out of the Bible or literature. For example, in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he referenced the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect 100 years earlier, by saying “five score years ago.” 


Four Score and Seven Years Ago”


Of course, the most memorable use of “score” is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln began that famous speech with a reference to “four score and seven years ago.” That number of years (87) refers to 1776, when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.