Numbers, much as I hate them, are an integral part of society. From the simple, mathematical need to count the people and things around us, to more complicated interactions with the world. Different languages denote count in different ways, and different cultures view numbers as lucky or unlucky, often contradicting other cultures’ views on those numbers.

For most American’s there is familiarity with triskadecaphobia (fear of the number 13). Even if you aren’t superstitious, you are aware of the cultural fear of this number. From buildings skipping the thirteenth floor, to the entire basis for the book The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. To be honest, I have no idea where the number thirteen first took on its fearful meaning. That it is particularly Western is beyond a doubt, but I don’t know how old it is. To some extent, we take it for granted, even laugh about it, but forget that for some people it is very real.

Personally, I count 13 as one of my lucky numbers. I’m not sure when I chose it as such, but it was partly because I always felt my luck was opposite to most individuals. Even with the number being one of my “lucky” numbers, I still count triskadecaphobia as one of my favorite words. I introduced it to my SAT students in China as a study in word roots. I received multiple questions about why thirteen was “unlucky.” I didn’t have an answer for them.

In Chinese culture, thirteen is the same as any other number. Their equivalent is the number four. The reason for this is to do with language. In Chinese, the word for four is pronounced si, which is the same pronunciation as the word for death. Keep in mind the Chinese language has more homophones (words that sound the same but are written differently) than any other language on the planet. Now, there is a tonal difference between four and death (four is fourth tone, death is third tone), but to an unpracticed ear they will sound essentially the same.

In the West, probably the most widely regarded lucky number is 7 (at least in my experience). In China, it’s 8. License plates are auctioned every year, and plates with all 8s can bring upwards of US$1 million at auction, while plates featuring numerous 4s or a 4 at the end of the number (four is associated with death, death is final, so it is believed you are tempting the finality of death by having an end digit of four; the same superstitions hold true for phone numbers, which you get to pick when you purchase your phone plan) can be had for a song. Keep in mind, the plates are only good for a year, then they are auctioned off again.

In the US, businesses see huge losses on Friday the 13th due to superstitious individuals choosing not to do any business on that day. We may pretend we’re more enlightened than the rest of the world, but the numbers say different.


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