Unexplained Numbers


oday is Friday the 13th, by all accounts, an unlucky day and number. You never see a 13th floor in any building in the US. Or any room number that ends in 13. Or streets. Or street numbers. Why is 13 so unlucky? I’ve read that Judas was the thirteenth arrivee to the last supper. I’ve also heard that the 13th visitor to a coven of witched–12 members–is the devil himself. There are, supposedly, 13 loops in a hangman’s noose.

In Japan, the numbers 4 and 9 are inauspicious because their pronunciations mimick the sounds for “death” and “suffering”, respectively. This is why you should know that when you give a gift, such as dishes or cups, they can never be in groups of 4s or 9s. This is really difficult in the US because most dishes and cups that you might buy for a wedding gift come in sets of 4s. Not that I’m superstitious, but I will usually make my own set of 5s, as they do in Japan. But even though there is a reason for these inauspicious numbers, every building has a 4th and 9th floor, unlike the unexplained absence of a 13th floor over here.

Now, I’ve never been good at math and so my distaste for numbers is rather healthy. I mean, I’m truly a simple guy. I have five fingers on each hand and I have two hand which gives me ten fingers. I have two feet with ten toes. If everything were divisible by 2s and 5s, life would be so simple, no?

But noooooooo… our lives are crowded with numbers that are unexplained, or for me, inexplicable. Like, why do we have so many 12s? There are 12 hours in a day which I simply cannot fathom. 12 months in a year I can grasp as there are 12 moon cycles per year, three per season. This, naturally, leads to 7 days in a week–unless you’re a Beatle–which was inevitable because there are 28 days in 1 moon cycle, although I’m not sure why they HAD to divide the 28 into 4 groups of 7s. But why 12 hours in a day? I mean, what is it in our time-space continuum that requires 1 revolution of the earth be divded into 12/24 units? What’s wrong with 10s and 20s? And let’s not forget a baker’s dozen. Was this a marketing ploy? Buy 10 get 2 free?

Other numbers I don’t get

  • 32 degrees = freezing. Why not 0 as in centigrade? Besides being Sandy Koufax’s number, I see no merit in this number
  • 21 years of age to drink. Huh? What is so magical about 21? Except that it’s divisible by 7.
  • 18 years of age to vote or smoke cigarettes. Y’know, in Japan you have to be an adult to either smoke or drink or vote. So the age is the same for all these acts requiring responsibility–20. What a nice round number.
  • 11 players per side in a football game? Why 11? Why 6 points per touchdown plus 1 extra point, as well as 3 points for a field goal.
  • For that matter, why 9 players per side in a baseball game. And why 9 innings, 3 outs, 3 strikes but 4 balls? (This is a setup for an inappropriate remark from which I will refrain.)

Oh well, I could go on for ever but I won’t bore you.

So what numbers bug you? Are there unlucky numbers in other cultures?