Things that aren't what they are

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I'm used to arguments that this or that word is actually "not a word". But I was surprised to see an analogous complaint about numbers that are allegedly not numbers, in Nadia Damouni, "Google bid 'pi' for Nortel patents and lost", Reuters 7/1/2011:

At the auction for Nortel Networks' wireless patents this week, Google's bids were mystifying, such as $1,902,160,540 and $2,614,972,128.

Math whizzes might recognize these numbers as Brun's constant and Meissel-Mertens constant, but it puzzled many of the people involved in the auction, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation on Friday.

"Google was bidding with numbers that were not even numbers," one of the sources said.

Here "not even numbers" seems to mean something like "numbers that have a whimsically over-precise number of significant digits, and therefore are so unexpected in this context that they don't seem to be real (in the "not artificial or illusory" sense, not the "partition of the rational numbers" sense).

The quoted source continues:

"It became clear that they were bidding with the distance between the earth and the sun. One was the sum of a famous mathematical constant, and then when it got to $3 billion, they bid pi," the source said, adding the bid was $3.14159 billion.

"Either they were supremely confident or they were bored."

I was able to come up with these examples of "Xs that are not even Xs":

Stop sending questions… that are not even questions.
People come here for gaming news, rumors, videos etc, and you repay everyone by doing a story that is not even a story – stuff like this is meant for blogs.
Instead of The Lion King or Beauty and The Beast, we get High School Musical and movies that are not even movies, just concert footage.
The second pseudo type would be those men who are not even men at all. So in touch are they with their feminine side, their emotional selves, that they can predict all that a woman yearns for.

No doubt readers can come up with some others.


  1. Karl said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    I interpreted "even" in that statement as meaning essentially "rounded so as to contain a large number of zeros," not saying that they weren't numbers.

  2. Karl said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:17 am

    To clarify my previous remark, I'm adopting the interpretation that "even numbers" is a noun phrase. Clearly this is still an extension from the mathematical sense of "even," but it makes better sense to me.

    [(myl) You might be right that the anonymous source meant "even numbers" to mean "round numbers (of billions, or of hundred millions, or whatever)". But in fact, "number that are not even numbers" does make sense, in the same way that "questions that are not even questions" does. It's the situation opposite to "it is what it is" — when it isn't what it is, in the sense that "it" is missing some important contextually expected (but no definitional) property.]

  3. Gamboling Lamb said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:17 am

    I did a double take when I read that article yesterday too. My first reading was yours ("Xs that are not even Xs"). But I abandoned that one in favor of "even" being an adjective modifying "numbers". Not the strict use of the phrase to mean {2,4,6,…} but in the sense of numbers that are not an even multiple of a million or a billion.

  4. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    I think we need to go to the tape here, to find out whether the speaker said "not even numbers (which would yield Mark's interpretation) or "not even numbers," which would suggest that the speaker recognized that the bid amounts were numbers, but that he's saying "even numbers" when he should be saying "round numbers."

  5. Chris said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    I ask a form of this question regularly in response to people who say, "It is what it is." Name me something that is what it isn't, please.

    I guess now I have my answer.

  6. James Harbeck said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    Karl: Funny, that didn't occur to me until you said it, but it does seem reasonable. In spite of the fact that the two numbers mentioned are, in the mathematical sense, even (divisible by 2). "Round" would have been clearer.

  7. PhoenixGirl said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:44 am

    I agree with Karl – although it is not the most precise use of language, I interpreted this (when I saw the original article earlier this week) as equivalent to round numbers – as I would speak of quickly approximating sums with "even dollar amounts."

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    I agree with Karl, and choosing "even" instead of "round" here strikes me as a mistake which would be harmless but for the resulting ambiguity. I don't suppose there's a recording? I'm pretty sure I would stress the words differently if I intended to declare that Google's bids were so outlandish that I didn't regard them as numerical, rather than merely pointing out that they were unusual in not being a multiple of a large power of ten.

    [(myl) A recording? We don't even have a name. For all we know, the "source" was the reporter's imaginary pet unicorn.]

  9. The Ridger said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Could you pay pi dollars for something?

    Rather than "round" or "even" numbers, might he have meant numbers that couldn't actually be reduced (is that the term?) to two decimal points?

  10. Jonathan Wright said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    This seems to be an expression of non-canonical-ness, for lack of a better term. Laura Whitton once worked on the sort of reduplication you get in phrases like "do you LIKE like him?" or "do you want a DRINK drink?" which seems to indicate canonical or prototypical concepts.

  11. John Roth said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    I'd go with Mark's interpretation. I saw the article, and it didn't occur to me that the person complaining meant anything other than "these aren't the kind of numbers I was expecting in an auction."

  12. wally said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    This discussion reminds me that if you ask most people for a "random" number what you typically get is an (arbitrarily chosen, I suppose) prime number.

    I took that as a challenge and ran "Name me something that is what it isn't" thru a few search engines. The best I came up with is
    "If Everybody Does Something Embarrassing, It Isn't Embarrassing Anymore"

  13. David L said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    In commonplace auctions (estate sales for examples), bids are typically made in increments of $5, $10, $50 etc etc, depending on the magnitude of the asking price. I suppose you could try bidding up by $3 or $18, but I think the auctioneer would give you a dirty look and round your bid up or down.

    In the same way, I expect bids in the contest reported here are typically made in round numbers, so that fanciful bids such as Google made do not belong to the standard bid armamentarium, and are therefore "not even numbers" according to the particular conventions of this part of the business world.

  14. Faldone said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    National Collegiate Football Champion is what it isn't.

    Seriously, "it is what it is" is not as opposed to "it is what it isn't." The counterexample to "it is what it is" is "it's more than what it seems to be on the face of it."

    The NCFC is less than what it seems to be on the face of it.

  15. Brian said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    I'm fairly sure the source meant numbers that aren't even. In fact I had to read the quote a few times before Mark's alternate interpretation even occurred to me.

  16. Q. Pheevr said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    Well, 1,902,160,540 and 2,614,972,128 are even, but they're also rather odd. Ergo, they are not what they are, and the title of this post is entirely apposite, no matter what the anonymous unicorn may have meant.

  17. Jayarava said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    I searched for "not even" and found out about "not even wrong" – to describe an argument that is not even an argument.

    There's also the phrase "wronger than wrong". Except I think that wronger is not even a word. Certainly my spell chequer is baffled.

  18. Greg B said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:46 am


    When people have such a regular response to 'it is what it is' I always wonder if 'que sera, sera' elicits the same reaction from them, and if not, why.

  19. wally said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    "National Collegiate Football Champion is what it isn't"

    That depends on what you think the word champion means. If a champion has to come from a playoff, you are right. I submit that the poll based system gives an answer that would be more repeatable over repeated trials.

    "I think that wronger is not even a word"

    But note Jimmy Dale Gilmore (of the Flatlanders) new bluegrass ish group the Wronglers.

  20. Adrian said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    I'm with Mark on this one.

  21. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    Here's "a song that is not even a song.. thats not music thats $#%@^&", about Prom Night by Rebecca Black. Having then given it a short listen on youTube, I can see what the commenter means…

  22. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    I'm with Mark as well. The repetition of the word "numbers" almost forces that interpretation for me.

    If the quote was meant to imply that the numbers weren't round numbers, it would have been more natural to say "Google was bidding with numbers that were not even."

  23. Dan T. said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    Well, you can't technically pay exactly pi dollars (or pi billion dollars), since it's an irrational number which, no matter what it's multiplied by, will break down to include a fractional cent for which there is no coinage.

  24. Zythophile said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    Greg B – "que sera, sera" is not even language – that is, it does not exist as a real grammatical phrase. It seems to be best described as mangled Spanish and Italian, and incorrect in both. Nice song, though …

  25. hector said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    @ Chris, Faldone

    Similarly to "it is what it is," "he's got to realize he is what he is" can, quite sensibly, refer to an NBA player who thinks he's a potential first-team all-star, while coaching staffs assess him as a potentially decent back-up point guard.

    A bit surprising to see a complaint about an idiom so soon after the recent post on idioms.

    [(myl) Complaint?]

  26. Greg B said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 2:32 pm


    Not even language! Yet it remains an expression with an understandable meaning, much like 'it is what it is'. Thus my curiosity over the different responses to those similar statements, or the multiple interpretations of 'an X which is not even an X'.

  27. Faldone said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    Well, a champion has to be the best in its class. There may be such in thing in collegiate football but we'll never know who it is. Too many teams, too few games. But we don't want to get into this argument in this forum.

  28. D.O. said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    May I through in another interpretation. Making corrections to the fact that Google bids are by far not Brun's and Meissel-Mertens constants (those are the numbers on the order of 1, but let's ignore powers of 10 altogether), they are at least integer numbers (in $) and the person who is allegedly saying "not even numbers" might have meant that the underlying numbers are not even integers as Brun's, Meissel-Mertens, and π are certainly not, even if multiplied by 10^9. In other words, its possible that whatever unicorn has spoken to the journalist he might have meant "they tried to bid with non-integer numbers!"

  29. eye5600 said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    "Well, a champion has to be the best in its class."

    No, it just has to be a winner.

    I always understood saying that something "is what it is" to mean the speaker feels the common descriptions are wrong or inapt.

    As for Google's bids, I wonder if the comment was due to a failure to understand nerd humor, or the affront of a bit of silliness in a serious arena. However, to a mathematician, a number and the expression of the number are different things. So, Google might have bid 1,000,000,000 (base 8) but they would have had to express it as 134,217,728 (base 10).

  30. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    @eye5600: "It is what it is" is most commonly used to convey a sense of "this thing we're discussing is reality, so we should accept it and deal with it." Alternatively, though, it's sometimes used to mean "this thing we're discussing is done and unalterable, so we can forget about it." The problem, though, isn't in the idiom — it's in the challenges and choices posed by the only-partially-malleable nature of reality. As Paul Gewirtz once put it, "realism can be a dangerous aspiration for people, such as judges or law professors, who are often accused of not being realistic enough." The desire to be "realistic" may cause one to "tak[e] reality to be more resistant than it is."

  31. CBK said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    "Even number" in the auction context might mean "integer when expressed in terms of some large unit" (e.g., billions).

    An example of this usage without the large unit: "if the perimeter is 288 inches and you want 5-inch stripes, divide 288 by 5. The result is 57.6. Since this result is not an even number, 5-inch stripes will not produce an evenly distributed pattern of vertical stripes." Source:

    The Reuters report says, "'. . . when it got to $3 billion, they bid pi,' the source said, adding the bid was $3.14159 billion."

  32. Mr Punch said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    I can come up with another example of a number "that's not even a number" : In 2006 the Boston Red Sox won the right to negotiate with a Japanese player, Daisuke Matsuzaka, with a bid of $51,111,111 – a figure that was reportedly chosen because it would carry some particular significance (in a way that I can't recall, if I ever knew) in Japan. As in the Google/Nortel case, it was a figure selected for a reason other than its numerical value in the bidding process.

  33. James said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    This strikes me as related to a phrase I've recently gotten into the habit of using (and Urban Dictionary confirms I'm not alone)—"that's not even a thing".

    It's clearly an abbreviated version of "not even a real thing", and is perhaps more likely to be technically accurate within a given context than "not even a number", but I think it carries the same not-to-be-taken-literally connotation. As in:

    "Math whizzes might recognize this number as Meissel-Mertens constant."
    "What? That's not even a thing."

  34. Eric P Smith said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    @ Dan T.: you can pay pi dollars by handing over $3.15 and generously saying, “Keep the change.”

  35. army1987 said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    My first interpretation of "even numbers" was "multiples of 2", then I looked at the last digit, was like "WTF?" for a couple hundred milliseconds, and decided they meant "round numbers".

  36. Flink said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    Man, a lot of these examples aren't even examples.

  37. jf said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

    There are good game-theoretic to randomize bids in order to avoid ties in certain auctions, although whimsical functions like round(pi*1e9,0) are actually a bit too focal… unless of course no one else bids that way.

  38. Karl Weber said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:19 pm


    Cf Stephen Wright's line, "I got into a fight with the guy running the roulette table over what I considered an odd number."

  39. Rubrick said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    When I saw the article (before reading this post) I immediately jumped to the same interpretation as Mark; my friend (who happens to work at Google) laughed and pointed out the "even numbers" interpretation. I think he was probably right, on the grounds that saying 1,902,160,540 was not even a number seemed implausibly ludicrous.

    If Google had been bidding transfinites* or something, "not even a number" might make more sense.

    *Not recommended

  40. John McIntyre said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    Isn't Wolfgang Pauli supposed to have said of a particularly sloppy paper, "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong"?

  41. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 1:04 am

    I think this thread has given me a combined math/language nerdgasm.

  42. Janice Byer said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 4:11 am

    FWIW, I learned in "Applied Calculus" class that pi is not a number. What it is, is a ratio. Specifically, the ratio between whatever number represents the circumference of a certain circle to whatever number represents the diameter of that particular circle.

    You can't locate pi on the number line, not unless you cheat and pretend an awesome discovery and historical milestone in our search for universally applicable mathematical principles is just some ol' fraction you can fudge into an approximate number and dub the real thing.


  43. Dbnkrn said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    The first thing I thought of when I saw this post was the rather puzzling "Maker's Mark" tag line: "It is what it isn't."

  44. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 5:16 am

    @ myl in comments "It's the situation opposite to 'it is what it is' — when it isn't what it is"

    Here's an example of something that explicitly isn't what it is: "The world isn't what it is. It's a mind trick". But this soon goes wrong – if the world is a mind trick, but also it isn't what it is, then it isn't a mind trick. Presumably "The world isn't what it seems. It's a mind trick".

    There was an "it is what it is" in The Times (£) today: Victoria Wood talking about her new musical That Day we Sang at the Manchester International Festival: "“we’ve got a huge cast, we’ve only got ten shows, we can’t make a profit. It’s nice to have that freedom. It’d be commercial suicide, but in a festival it is what it is.”"

  45. Ken Brown said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 7:49 am

    @Janice Byer: Pi is still a number, its just an irrational number. Not "irrational" as in "illogical" but "irrational" because it cannot be expressed as the ratio between any two integers. And you can locate it on a number line, to any arbitrary precision you care to ask for.

  46. Nightstallion said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 8:13 am

    I think Karl's interpretation has merit.

    Also, I <3 Google. Really. Bidding with (10^n multiples of) mathematical constants? Classy.

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 10:17 am

    I'm with David L. These numbers aren't the kind of numbers in this situation.

    @Janice Byer: I think it would be very hard to do calculus if one took the idea that pi isn't a number seriously. I can't imagine why a teacher would say something like that in, of all things, a calculus class—of all things, applied calculus.

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    I swear I typed "aren't the kind of numbers we use in this situation".

  49. Dan S said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    We wouldn't have this ambiguity, of course, but for the fact that "were not even numbers" is the plural BOTH OF "was not an even number" AND ALSO OF "was not even a number."

    I've asked (by email and by tweet) the Reuters reporter, Nadia Damouni, to straighten us out.

  50. Mark F. said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    Do people really often use "even numbers" to mean "round numbers"?

  51. Rebecca said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    @Mark F: I hear "even" for "round" fairly frequently from 10 and 11 year olds – how much of that slips into adulthood, I couldn't say.

  52. Zubon said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    "Even" and "round":

    We might say, "ten dollars even," as in "and no cents." I have never heard anyone say, "ten dollars round," or any variation thereof in that context.

  53. Anarcissie said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    I understand (in the realm of Xs that are not (even) Xs) that in classical Greek literature a word followed immediately by its negative form or opposite was used to express the idea that the thing was false or invalid, for example 'gamos agamos', 'a marriage (that is) not a marriage', said about Oedipus, probably. Doing English wordplay we might try to be more succinct and call it an 'unmarriage', un- being used as in 'unperson'.

  54. Dan S said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    @Zubon, that's a different "even", one with the meaning "exactly".

    For example, this seems fine to me:
    "It was 97 cents, even."

    There are more on google, although I expect that a competent COCA user wouldn't retrieve so many red herrings.

  55. Ellen K. said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    I notice Wiktionary has a definition for even:

    (of a number) Convenient for rounding other numbers to; for example, ending in a zero.

    with a usage note

    Because of confusion with the "divisible by two" sense, use of even to mean "convenient for rounding" is rare; the synonym round is more common.

  56. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    With regard to Janice Byer's comment about irrational numbers: in my opinion, the best way to intuitively "get" what irrational numbers are is via working through what incommensurability is and implies. And while it's not clear what was meant by "not a number", it's the case that whatever it is that would make one reluctant to declare pi "not a number" exists within the ratio of the two magnitudes which define it, as well. That is, they can't be put into a ratio using the same unit.

    The number line thing is even more ambiguous…I'm not sure what is up with that assertion at all. I have a sense that it might be some sort of constructivist argument, maybe because pi is transcendental. But pi definitely exists on the number line. It's the word "locate" that leads me to believe there's some constructivism going on. But, as a practical matter, I don't know how you locate any number on the number line with perfect precision. :)

  57. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    Er, as often discussed here, I made a mistake with my negative qualifiers…I meant to write "…whatever it is that would make one reluctant to declare pi a number".

  58. Will said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

    The phrase "not even numbers" totally reminds me of Rubin's vase.

  59. Mfahie said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    OT: Que sera, sera = a perfectly good sentence in French (though pronounced incorrectly in the song)

  60. Zubon said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    @Dan S,
    No, that usage you are suggesting does not exist in my North Midwestern American English. You would never say "97 cents, even," unless you were engaging in the sort of humor that leads to saying "approximately 27.045%." You would only refer to 97 cents as "even" if there was a chance of fractional cents, and in that sense, "exactly" means a round/whole number.

    Flipping through a few pages of those Google results, none are anyone using "X cents even" the way you are suggesting.

  61. Aaron Davies said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

    Does anyone know the history of "even" meaning "integer divisible by two"? Is it a specialization of "evenly divisible by", or vice versa? Perhaps some people generalize from "number evenly divisible by…" to "even number" in this sense.

  62. Aaron Davies said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

    (And BTW, had they bid τ billion, they'd have won (at least if their opponents hadn't raised them again).)

  63. Dakota said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    @Mfahie Que sera, sera = a perfectly good sentence in French (though pronounced incorrectly in the song

    But perfectly good pronunciation in Spanish.

  64. This Week's Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    […] Blog provided British accent samples instead.  At Language Log, Mark Liberman took a look at things that aren’t what they are, namely Google’s recent bids for Nortel patents (“pi” and “the distance between the earth […]

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