Skip to main content

Unlucky Numbers

Image result for unlucky numbers
In a lot of American buildings, there is no 13th floor.  It's bad luck!

At least once (but as many as three times) a year, Friday the 13th appears on the Gregorian calendar.  Traditionally this is supposed to be a day of bad luck, but just where that superstition comes from isn’t quite clear.  One popular belief is that it dates to Friday, October 13, 1307.  Legend has it that King Philip VI of France gave an order that a number of the Knights Templar were to be arrested on this date.  The arrests were supposed to occur simultaneously, to prevent them from resisting.  King Philip did indeed do this, but the association of that date with this act was not noticed until the early 20th century, so it’s unlikely there’s a connection.  Another theory is that the Last Supper had thirteen people in attendance, and according to Biblical accounts, it was one of the thirteen (Judas) who betrayed Christ, who was arrested and crucified by the Romans the next day, which was Good Friday.  This connection is tenuous at best, and also doesn’t appear in any historical records before the 19th century.

The Friday the 13th superstition might have been borrowed from the Greeks, who believe that Tuesday the 13th is an unlucky day.  This might date to Tuesday, April 13, 1204, which was the day European Crusaders sacked the Greek city of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.  For Greeks, Tuesday is in general considered to be an unlucky day, since in astrology, it is dominated by Ares, the god of war.

Thirteen is considered to be unlucky in a number of cultures, in fact.  Often tall buildings, when numbering their floors, will skip the thirteenth floor, fearing the bad luck that such a floor will bring.  Mayan superstition also sees thirteen as a harbinger of doom, since the ancient Mayans believed the world would end after the thirteenth baktun.  (A baktun is a cycle of 144,000 days, or about 394½ years.)  The end of the thirteenth Mayan baktun occurred on December 21, 2012, which is why so many people talked about the world ending on that date a few years ago.

Most European cultures consider thirteen to be an unlucky number, but not all.  In Italy, 13 is considered a lucky number.  The day to be dreaded there is Friday the 17th.  This might come from the fact that the Roman numeral 17, written as XVII, is an anagram of VIXI, the Latin word for lived, which appears on old tombstones.

In fact, associations with death, no matter how incidental, seem to affect how a culture will look at a number.  In Chinese, the number 4 is looked at as unlucky, since the Chinese word for 4 sounds very similar to the Chinese word for death.  Buildings with four or more floors in China will often skip 4 and go right on to 5 when numbering the floors, just like how Western high-rises will skip the 13th floor.  The Chinese take it further, though.  They’ll also skip the 14th floor, the 24th floor and the 34th floor, as well as floors 40-49.  They will allow a 54th floor, however, since the Chinese word for 5 sounds similar to the Chinese word for not, so it comes across as “not death”, which makes it okay.  After that, they’ll go on skipping the 64th floor, the 74th floor, etc.

Image result for unlucky numbers
Chinese elevator buttons.  Where's the fourth floor?

In Japanese, the word for 9 sounds similar to the word for torture.  It’s because of this association that airlines and hospitals will often avoid referring to the number 9 at all, lest it bring anyone bad luck.

In the United States, the number 191 has unlucky associations.  If you’re an American and you’ve never heard this, that’s probably because you don’t work for the airlines.  Between 1972 and 2006, there have been four different crashes for flights numbered 191, which is highly unusual.  It’s unlikely there will be a fifth in the United States, since most major airlines have discontinued using 191 as a flight number for this very reason.

In Bulgaria, there’s a famous unlucky phone number.  From the 1990s to the 2000s, every customer who was assigned the number 0888 888 888 has died, giving the number a reputation as “cursed”.  The deaths were all premature and often violent, which only enhanced the number’s mystique.  The Bulgarian cell phone company Mobitel, which owns the number, will not comment on it, citing a policy of never commenting on any number.  However, if you do call it, you get a message stating that 0888 888 888 is “outside network coverage”, so perhaps the company is too spooked to assign it again.  It’s probably best not to—it’s bad business to have your customers die on you!


Popular posts from this blog

43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to be a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Niblings a…

Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her.
The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The first football gag is quite a bit different from w…