Zeroing in: Decoding the hidden text in numbers
In this month’s Capital Letters, Adam Jacot de Boinod digs into how names of numbers take on meaning, some denoting smooth proceedings; others, definite death.
We don’t often think about why we count the way we do, or how the names of numbers came to be, but this is an interesting subset of the study of language.
Numbers, for instance, were a particularly big deal in Ancient China, which had terms for the largest and tiniest denominations one could think of. Tsai, for instance, was 100 trillion, in Archaic Chinese, the oldest form of that language (records of Archaic Chinese go as far back as inscriptions on oracle bones dated to 1250 BCE). Cheng was 10 trillion in Archaic Chinese. Chien was one trillion. Hsien was one-hundred-millionth; sha was one-billionth; and ch’en was one-ten-billionth. There was also a word, daoshu, for the act of counting backwards.
In China, even today, numbers are a hugely prominent consideration when it comes to luck. The number two is “yi”, which can also mean “ease”, and is considered lucky. The number six is “liu”, which sounds like the word for “slippery”, which is taken to mean that everything can go smoothly, so lucky again.
The number 889 is considered auspicious as it comes very close to the words for “prosper, prosper forever”. The number 666 is considered one of the luckiest, and can be seen prominently in many shop windows. This is because 666 in Chinese sounds like “smooth smooth smooth”, in other words, “everything goes smoothly”.
People often pay extra to get a mobile phone number or licence plate that contains these strings of digits.
Combinations of one and four, meanwhile, are shunned, particularly on storefronts, addresses and licence-plate numbers. The figure 1164, for instance, sounds like “yat yat look say” or “everyday roll over and die”. Who’d want that on their car.
The number four, in fact, denotes bad luck in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese, since in all these languages it is a word very similar to the word for death. Chinese and Korean buildings may not even have a fourth floor. Some airports in these countries eliminate Gate Four as well. The number 1414 is especially dreaded, because when spoken it sounds just like the words “definite death, definite death”.
Numbers and objects, meanwhile, overlap in interesting ways. In Japan, an even number is bad luck. In India, an odd number is much desired and considered auspicious, which is why a single rupee is always added to a cash gift, to take it from even to odd.
Odd numbers are considered bad luck in China. Even an uneven number of people in a photograph is believed to bring ill fortune, including the risk that the person in the middle will soon die! Gifts are given in pairs too, and with both hands.
Why this fear of one? Well, in a cohesive society that, for better and worse, retains some of its most ancient customs and ways of living, one indicates a much-feared thing: singularity, of a kind. Odd numbers, quite simply, imply separation and loneliness.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World)