Miscellany № 59: the percent sign

A few weeks back, Nina Stössinger asked on Twitter:

Isn’t it odd that the percent sign looks like “0/0” rather than, say, “/100” or “/00”?

This, it turns out, is a very good question. Like Nina, I had assumed that the percent sign was shaped so as to invoke the idea of a vulgar fraction, with a tiny zero aligned on either side of a solidus ( ⁄ ), or fraction slash. That said, something about those zeroes had always nagged at me. Specifically, as you divide any non-zero quantity by a smaller and smaller number the result tends ever closer to infinity (or rather, ±∞ as appropriate), until finally, when dividing by zero itself, you reach a mathematical singularity where the result cannot be computed — a numerical black hole of exotic properties and mind-bending implications. Throw in another zero as the numerator and you have a thoroughly nonsensical fraction. Though this is all terribly exciting from a philosophical point of view, it is not an especially useful situation to be in when trying to communicate the simple concept of division into hundredths. Either the ‘%’ had stumbled, blinking, from some secret garden of esoteric mathematics and into the real world, or there was more to the story. And so there was.

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