One Die, Two Dice

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Mickey Bayard has questions about the words die and dice.

A friend and I are in dispute over the expression, “The di (die , dye) is cast, we have crossed the Rubicon “.  …our conflict is over the use of “di”. I feel it is the singular of Dice , and therefore means the casting of a single dice or di. My friend argues that it is related to a Die cast i.e. A Sword cast in metal from a die. Both seem plausible and the spelling should help , but I have seen it both ways ….So many people must be confused as well.

First, Caesar’s frequently quoted statement is usually rendered as The die is cast.

Alea iacta est (also alea jacta est, Latin: “The die has been cast”) is a Latin phrase attributed by Suetonius (as iacta alea est [ˈjakta ˈaːlea est]) to Julius Caesar on January 10, 49 BC as he led his army across the River Rubicon in northern Italy. –Wikipedia

Gambling was a favorite Roman pastime so Caesar’s metaphor was easily understood. Fate controlled the roll of the dice. By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar initiated the events that would play out in the civil war to follow.

The plural of this kind of die is dice.

I don’t know about swords, but coins and other objects are cast from a die:

An engraved stamp used for impressing a design or figure upon some softer material, as in coining money, striking a medal, embossing paper, etc.

The plural of this kind of die is dies.

The word die may come from Latin datum in the sense of “that which is given or decreed [as by lot or fortune].

The dots on dice are indented. The sense of “stamping block or tool” for die was first recorded in the 1690s.

There is historical precedent for using the plural “dice” as a singular, as in this example from the OED:

1751 MRS. E. HEYWOOD Hist. Betsy Thoughtless IV. 202 Protesting never to touch a card or throw a dice again.

Contemporary gamers frequently use “dice” as a singular:

The probability of one dice being a particular number is 1/6.

The player may use either ONE DICE or THE OTHER, instead of adding both Dice together, to increase their count.

Each player keeps one dice.

This use of “dice” to refer to one of the dotted cubes has recently crept into directions for games intended for general audiences.

The use of “dice” as a singular noun strikes my ear as incorrect, but I suspect that it will eventually become the norm.

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8 thoughts on “One Die, Two Dice”

  1. As I understand it, objects made using a die are not cast but stamped or struck. Cast objects are generally molded ,as in cast iron, and could include dice. And the blades from makers I know are neither cast nor struck but wrought. It seems clear to me from the context that Caesar used cast to mean throw, which is also done to make pottery. English is such a slippery language.

    Would an actual Roman have ever used “jacta” to mean any form of manufacturing or would it always be a synonym for “toss”?

  2. The singular of dice is die.

    With invention of the electronic integrated circuit, the IC, electrical engineers have been introduced to the word “die”—which consists of a single transistor. There may be millions of such devices in an integrated circuit, like the microprocessor in your computer. Engineers thereore have recourse to discuss how many of these devices are in an IC—and it is the rare engineer who knows that these devices are called “dice”. The typical engineer, who despised English courses when in college, speaks of the many “die” that are in the IC. It gets me crazy to hear top 1% IQ people who can’t speak English. This aberration even extends to editors of engineering magazines. Duh!

    Tiny dice are called dice. Large ones, like the ones a tool and die maker makes are called dies.

  3. One mouse, two mice; one spouse two spice. I never thought about the “die is cast” thing. It’s interesting how the word dice/die just took on a new dimension for me. Thanks for sharing this. Never cared but it’s certainly worth reading about and thought-provoking! OMG, I’m such a nerd! 🙂

  4. I grew up playing board games in the 60/70’s we always said “roll the dice” I just found out today that 1 die 2 dice ! It will be very hard for me to say “die” rather than “dice” !

  5. Nobody casts swords they hope to actually use (cast metals are hard and inflexible, and would break, swords need to be elastic). Certainly the Romans didn’t. Actual swords are made by blacksmiths.

    Caesar is just saying that the moment of decision of behind him. Pretty obvious, if you ask me.

  6. As Doug points out, the word “jacta” in the original Latin quotation makes the meaning of the English word “cast” absolutely clear.

    As William points out, swords are not cast to begin with.

  7. A single transistor is not a “die” unless perhaps it is to be packaged and sold as a discrete individual transistor like a 2N2222. The entire integrated circuit (possibly consisting of billions of transistors) is a die. There are many die on a wafer. And yes, most engineers in the semiconductor field do call one die a die and usually multiple die are die to us as well, grammatical idiots that we all are (myself included). There are a few that try to stay grammatically correct and call multiple die “dice” but that seems rare. At least where I work. Interestingly, when the many die on a wafer are sawed up from their wafer form into their die form it is called “dicing” the wafer. I am not sure why so many people assume that grammar is does not change with the times. What was grammatically correct and acceptable 2000 years ago does not have to be so today. The times do change, cultures mix and peoples use of language and acceptable grammar do change with time. Roll with it.

  8. We actually use dice as a plural and singular similar to the way ‘pence’ is a permanent plural. It’s categorized as uncountable and its spelling is an artifact of its pronunciation in Middle English. Furthermore, it originates from the Old French des > which comes from the Latin datum, which also operates as uncountable today (datum/data). Like not ending sentences with prepositions and not using singular ‘they’, this fixed view on plurality is only a couple hundred years old, was decided upon by a grammarian with no consideration to actual usage, and doesn’t really reflect the natural development of the English language. Feel free to use ‘dice’ or ‘die’ as you please!

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