Traditionally, "five bar gate" is the name of a widespread technique of tallying, i.e. making marks to keep a count of something. It's also sometimes called the "herringbone" method. Here, I speculate on how it evolved:

The very most basic form of tallying is to make one mark for every item counted; counting sheep would be a classical example. A problem with this is that, once all sheep are tallied and all marks made, it is almost as much work to count the marks as it was to count the sheep.

An improvement would be to group the marks, perhaps in groups of five: Five consecutive marks would be made close to one another, then some space left, then the next group.

Why five? Human perceptive capability will allow most people to look at a group of five objects and immediately recognize that it has a cardinality of 5. Above five, this starts to get more difficult, depending on practice. Some people can look at a group of twenty and "know" how many elements are in it, and the movie Rain Man led us to believe that autists can even do this with a group of fifty. But for the rest of us, the limit is around five, and besides: Five coincides with the number of fingers (including the thumb) on one human hand. It's no coincidence that most counting systems worldwide are based on the number 10.

But back to tallying: If you've ever tried this, you will have found that it's hard to keep your spacing consistent; and when counting up groups of marks, it may be hard to tell where one group ends and the next one starts. Again, unnecessary work. Thus, our clever ancestors thunk up the five bar gate: Four consecutive vertical marks and one diagonal mark running through the previous four constitute one group.

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The grouping element is the diagonal mark, so you can be almost as messy as you like in spacing your marks, it will still be fairly easy to count groups of five by counting diagonal marks.

Note the interesting optical illusion: It appears that the vertical lines in the picture above are untidily crooked, though I assure you they are in fact parallel and straight.

Global distribution

This method of arranging marks for tallying has proved simple and effective, so it is in widespread use today where tallying is still done by hand. But of course this is just one of many similar possible techniques.

I can personally attest to having seen this technique used in Germany and maybe (I'm not sure) France. One reader tells me it's also used in Norway. Wikipedia claims, though without attribution, that it's seen in Europe, North America and Australia. On the other hand, it seems that some Oriental culture and languages, notably Chinese, Japanese and Korean, have a technique of instead constructing a five-stroke pictogram stroke by stroke, while a technique common in Brazil is based on drawing a square, with the fifth stroke diagonally crossing out the square.

Sexual significance

OK, I admit it. My main motivation to write this piece was to present the following tidbit from the "everything you never wanted to know unless you're a pervert" department:

The Five Bar Gate has been discovered by spankos as an effective caning technique.

For those of you not au courant in the BDSM scene, a few explanations:

  • Spankos are consenting adults who enjoy spanking each other as (part of) erotic play. It's their kink, if you will.
  • Spanking is exactly what you thought: Yes, they hit each other on the butt, and get sexually aroused by it!
  • Caning is a "heavier" specialization of spanking: For greater effect, a cane is used for hitting with. Canes are traditionally wooden rods, usually of rattan, but some spankos like the even more severe canes made from modern plastics such as lexane.

Spanking is regarded as a chiefly british kink, and the Brits like to be perfectionist about it: The norm is for the spanker to apply six hard strokes of the cane (often called "six of the best") to the spankee's backside. This being erotic play, said backside is usually bare and will soon sport half a dozen weals (red lines, "stripes"). The perfectionist spanker takes pride in producing perfectly parallel stripes, very evenly spaced from top to, umm, bottom of the posterior.

Crisscrossing stripes are considered "messy," and there is a practical reason as well: When the cane strikes the same spot twice, the second blow to the already tenderized flesh is especially painful, often randomly, and can cause unintended extra damage. If the strokes are severe, this can result in breaking the skin, which most spankers are careful to avoid.

The Five Bar Gate, however, is a technique which intentionally capitalizes on the "double strike" effect: First four strokes are applied in the usual parallel, evenly spaced style. Then the spanker holds the cane at an angle such that the fifth blow intersects the lines from all four of the preceding strokes, resulting in four double strikes from a single blow. Pain sluts attest that this last blow is especially, deliciously painful, while sadistic spankers are pleased that this is so.


There is sexual significance to more things and ideas than you may have thought.