## Don’t Get Mad, Get Equal

The title of this post is a modification of a common idiom. It doesn’t make much sense, but if people are allowed to use even when they mean equal, then vice versa.

A math terminology debate over these two words occurred in our house yesterday.

While walking my dog, I found a shiny, new penny. When I got home, I told my sons that whoever guessed the item I found could have that item. To my dismay, my mother-in-law, father-in-law and wife started making suggestions. “Maybe it’s a penny,” my wife suggested. “Or a quarter,” said my mother-in-law. “Or a dime,” said my father-in-law. I looked at my dog. C’mon, boy, you’re the only one who hasn’t said anything. Why don’t you suggest that it could also be a nickel and make this game completely devoid of fun, I thought.

But kudos to Eli for what he did next. “Is it a coin?” he asked, and I could almost see his five-year-old brain thinking that this would make him a winner no matter which of the suggested coins it was.

“It sure is!” I said, beaming, and handed him the coin.

We play games like this all the time, and each of my sons wins in roughly equal proportions. But upon seeing Eli receive a penny, my mother-in-law must have sensed favoritism. She pulled out her coin purse and handed some coins to both boys. When the dust settled, Eli had two nickels and three pennies, but Alex had just one nickel and three pennies. Alex asked why he had received fewer. It was just an oversight, and Grandma gave him another nickel.

“Now we have an even number of coins,” Eli said.

“Actually, you have an equal number of coins,” I corrected. “Five isn’t an even number.”

“Oh, come on,” said my mother-in-law. “They’re five years old.”

“I’d rather them not use math words incorrectly,” I said. “You’d correct them if they called a firetruck an ambulance, wouldn’t you?”

“That’s different,” she said.

Only because you know the difference between a firetruck and an ambulance, but not between even and equal, I thought. But I didn’t say anything.

As it turns out, the Google dictionary lists equal as a synonym for even. In that case, however, equal means being in equilibrium or balanced, not having the same number or value, so there is a subtle distinction. Then again, the Google dictionary also gives regardless as the definition for irregardless, which isn’t even a word, and if it were, it should mean the opposite of regardless, right? The work of lexicographers often reflects how we speak and not how we ought to speak, so it won’t be long before equal and even have the same definitions.

What do you think? Are even and equal synonyms? Are there other math words that are used interchangeably but shouldn’t be?

My mother-in-law and I often have these little exchanges, but for the most part, we get along well. She is an exceptionally wonderful grandmother, she is generous and kind, and her penchant for dark beers makes her an instant friend. I love her dearly.

Yet these debates make me realize why other folks disparage their in-laws. If my mother-in-law and I had these debates and she weren’t otherwise wonderful, I might speak ill of her, too. And then I might make math mother-in-law jokes like the following:

I’ve got nothing against polygamy. I just don’t know how one man could tolerate that many mother-in-laws.

Or this one from comedian Les Dawson:

My mother-in-law caused an argument in a pub, and a half dozen men dragged her to the floor, screaming. The barman turned to me and asked, “Aren’t you going to help?”

“Nah!” I said. “Six should be plenty!”

Not long ago, I was told that I only had three months left to live. So my wife and I moved in with my mother-in-law, knowing it would feel a whole lot longer. One night, the three of us sat down for dinner, and my wife opened a bottle of wine. My wife read from the label, “Full-bodied and imposing, with a sharp bite and a bitter aftertaste.” She took a sip. “I think that’s a perfect description!” she said.

“Me, too,” I added. “But how does the winemaker know your mother?”

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• 1. Laurie Penney  |  March 12, 2013 at 8:09 am

I think I correct kids on the equal/even issue at least once a week. Uphill battle. (Or is that an inclined battle?)

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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