# Why does « chiffre » (digits), NOT « nombre », mean "figure"?

• "chiffre(s)" is often used when referring to quantitative data (or their lack). It is then an amount, e.g. the total sum of an evaluation, as in "le chiffre de la population parisienne" or "Un petit trésor, de l'or et des billets de banque, dont il ne connaissait jamais le chiffre exact" (Zola, Le Docteur Pascal,1893, p. 44). Apr 15, 2023 at 9:59
• It's the same in English! “Figure” originally meant a digit (a narrowing from the more general meaning of one symbol which could be a letter, digit, ideogram, pictogram, …), then evolved to also mean a number (which can be written using multiple figures in the earlier sense). Apr 15, 2023 at 10:30
• counter point: why use "figure", not "number" in English? Apr 15, 2023 at 14:32
• @njzk2 there's similar confusion and overlap in English. The terms aren't clear-cut in any of the two languages. ell.stackexchange.com/a/265324/170912 Apr 17, 2023 at 11:41
• @njzk2 Ask this as a new separate question on english.stackexchange.com.
– user32314
Apr 22, 2023 at 19:43

No, you can't replace chiffres by nombres in the expression manque de chiffres.

Nous ne sommes pas en mesure [...] à cause du manque de nombres. ❌
Les fonctionnaires regrettent le manque de nombres. ❌

These sentences would make no sense. There is an infinity of nombres so there can be no lack of them.

In the other sentence, nombre would be unidiomatic.

Ces nombres minimisent la détérioration. ❓

A nombre is often the result of a dénombrement (counting) while a chiffre, in this acception, is the result of a calcul (calculation). Statistics better match the second definition.

As to why a word that means 'digit' ends up meaning 'figure', it is the usual fate of words to have their meanings evolve in the course of their lives. After all, chiffre (and 'cypher' for that matter) originally comes from a word meaning 'zero', and even actually cognates with zéro so it is simply a typical case of broadening of meanings: zero → digit → figure.

• Interestingly, in English, "We don't have the numbers" can mean either (a) our number of [item]s is too low, e.g. we can't produce enough copies, or (b) we have not yet determined the values of a given set of variables. This latter is closest to chiffre, and in fact "We don't have the figures" can be substituted precisely for sense (b). Apr 15, 2023 at 13:14
• @LukeSawczak (a) On n'atteint pas les chiffres (prévus/attendus/espérés), (b) On n'a pas (encore) les chiffres. Apr 15, 2023 at 14:25