What is the singular of dice?
People often refer to individual dice as “a dice”, but the correct term is in fact “die”. However, in modern Standard English, the term dice is equally acceptable in meaning a single article. So what is the background of the singular of dice?
The word itself is old, going back hundreds if not thousands of years. The name “dice” for more than one article comes from the singular “die”. More than one die, logically, would be “dies”, just as more than one cat would be “cats” – the letter ‘s’ is just added on the end. When spoken however, dies sounds like dice, and dice does not connote death, and is therefore used as a preferential spelling.
This ties in with the earlier Old French word “de”, of which the plural was “des”. This is rooted in the Latin word datum which means ‘something given or played’, making the modern use appropriate – dice are something to play with.
The modern English variant arrived through the Old French word morphing into the Middle English words “dy” and “dys”. In Icelandic and Old Norse, the word dys means rocks used to bury a body (also known as a cairn) – it is conceivable that a pile of rocks could be linked to the word “dice” by its very appearance, but it also fits in with the use of the word die (as in death).
With early dice being made in some instances from bones, it is easy to see how the root of the word is intrinsically linked with death and the dead. You may never look at rolling the bones in the same way!
The modern usage of the word “dice”
It can mean to chop things into cubes, giving a similar shape to 6 sided dice. This also gives rise to the word “dices”, which does not indicate more than one die or dice, but the process of cutting something into cubes – which can also be termed dicing.
In spite of all this, many modern tabletop gamers still refer to a singular article as a die. When spoken out loud, “a twenty sided die” actually sounds better than “a twenty sided dice”, and so it may be more of a matter of preference than the use of any particular English language convention. That’s why singular of dice is as it is.
Whichever you choose to use, there are multiple meanings for the words die and dice, and so it is wise to make sure you explain the context when choosing to use either. Hopefully it will be clear depending on what you are doing, but it would be foolish to use the word “die” in an instance where it could be confused with “death”, meaning dice may be a better choice at that time.
Language purists may insist that “die” is the correct form, but the English language is constantly changing and adapting, making “dice” just as acceptable in modern conversations. So in short, that is the singular of dice.