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 Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally



Today I was asked whether "some fifty years ago" means the same thing as "fifty-some years ago." I replied no, that "some fifty" means "approximately fifty" and that "fifty-some" means "somewhat more than fifty (but less than sixty)."

But I couldn't find any dictionary to support this interpretation. Most English-English dictionaries, in their entries for "some," ignore the postnumber construction entirely, and those that do give meanings define it as equivalent to the prenumber version. For example:
some  adverb 1 : ABOUT <some 80 houses> <twenty-some people> (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate)
At least one English-Japanese dictionary gives the same interpretation:
some adv. 1 [数詞と共に用いて] 約..., およそ, ほぼ (about): There were 〜 hundred books in all. 本が全部で約 100 冊あった ... / 〜 twenty [twenty-some] people [times] 約 20 人 [回] (Kenkyusha's New English-Japanese)
But I continue to believe that the postnumber construction means "more than," and the examples I found in newspapers and on the Web all confirm that interpretation. Some of those examples appear below; the arithmetic is left to the reader.
British Novelist Dodie Smith began writing "I Capture the Castle'' in 1943. Somebody at MGM saw the first three chapters, loved the coming-of-age story and wanted to option the book. Dodie passed... If MGM had made it, Elizabeth Taylor undoubtedly would have played Cassandra, the book's 17-year-old protagonist who learns about love and life while living with her eccentric family in a dilapidated Suffolk castle. Fifty-some years later, we instead get Romola Garai... (Los Angeles Daily News, June 11, 2003)

Surrounded by family, Curtis died at 7:25 p.m. at Community General Hospital in Syracuse. He was 74. He is survived by his wife, Joan, and two sons and two daughters, friends said. ... At age 15, Curtis dropped out of his Solvay high school to take an announcing job at WFBL-AM. Fifty-some years later, he received one of his highest professional honors when the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded him the Silver Circle award in 1999. (The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), November 30, 2001)

It so happens that I am going to turn fifty-seven this August. ... But I would like to tell you about the most wondrous gift of all. I was not yet four when I received it, and the donor was a lordly personage whose face I cannot remember. The present was a magnificent ceremonial sword. ... Even today, fifty some years later, the sword remains one of the most vivid objects I nearly possessed. (The Horn Book Magazine, July 1, 1994)

More than a century ago [in 1898], Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill and stole from Cuba's freedom fighters what they had earned with the blood of battles won ― independence from Spain. Fifty some years later, on Santiago's outskirts, Fidel Castro charged the Moncada Barracks in 1953 to rewrite Cuba's history again. (The Orlando Sentinel, March 11, 2002)

So, when her children went off to college, Ruth dedicated years of her life to documenting and telling the story of the Tulsa Race Riot of May 31 and June 1, 1921. ... It was only fifty some years after the end of slavery [in 1865], and Tulsa was a place where the American dream was starting to look hopeful for African Americans. (Web)
(January 28, 2005)