Pick a number, any number

S Upendran

It’s strange how superstitious some people are when it comes to numbers. In India, highly educated, and fairly well-to-do people are willing to shell out big bucks in order to get the registration number of their choice for their vehicles. They do this because they believe that certain numbers will bring them luck. This belief that some numbers are lucky, while others are not, is ingrained not only among people, but also in the languages that they speak. In India, 3 is considered to be a lucky number. As far as the English language is concerned, 3, 7 and 9 are believed to be lucky. 13, on the other hand, is a number that nobody wants to talk about. People fear it, and many businessmen, to keep their clients happy make sure that the dreaded number remains invisible. Some hotel owners, for example, make sure no room is given this number. Similarly, airlines, in order to keep their passengers tension free and happy ensure no row is marked 13. One finds row 12, and the following row is usually numbered 14! There are those who refuse to utter the word ‘thirteen’; when circumstances compel them to, they prefer to say, ‘baker’s dozen’.

Why is 13 called ‘baker’s dozen’? What is the connection between the number and a baker? We know that dozen means 12, so why does a ‘baker’s dozen’ mean 13? The expression has been a part of the English language for over 800 years, and it owes its existence to a practice that was started during medieval England. In order to make sure that customers were not cheated, in 1266, a law was passed in Parliament which specified exactly how much each loaf of bread should weigh. Bakers were given strict instructions to follow the rules, and if someone was caught selling a loaf that was less than the specified weight, a heavy penalty was imposed on the erring individual. To make sure that he wasn’t penalized, a baker invariably added an extra loaf for every dozen you bought. If you bought 12 loaves of bread, the baker gave you 13: just to make sure that he wasn’t penalized.

Today’s bakers, of course, go to the other extreme. They do everything they possibly can to rip us off. If they did, however, follow the policy of their medieval brethren, we would all be delighted. Like De Caprio in the movie, ‘Titanic’, we would be on cloud nine screaming, ‘I’m king of the world!’ As everyone knows, when you say that you are on cloud nine, you mean that you are feeling extremely happy; you are on top of the world. One may ask why ‘cloud 9’ and not ‘cloud 100’? Where did this expression come from?

As it is the case with many idioms, no one is really sure about its origin. Some believe that the original expression was ‘on cloud seven’, very similar to the expression ‘seventh heaven’. Others believe that nine was chosen because it is considered a mystical number. According to weathermen, ‘cloud nine’ refers to the ‘cumulonimbus’ or the thunderstorm cloud. This cloud often rises to forty thousand feet; and when you are ‘on’ such a cloud, you are literally on top of the world! The expression was made popular in the 1950s by a radio series titled, ‘Johnny Dollar’. In the series, the hero was often knocked unconscious; when he was in this state, he was transported to cloud nine from where he continued to talk to his listeners.

Of course, if one were to write such a story now, we would probably be given the third degree by the so called literary critics. The ‘third degree’, as we know, is a lengthy interrogation; in common parlance, it is a ‘grilling’ given by someone. The police are believed to use this method to interrogate people whom they suspect of having done something wrong, when they want to extract a confession. In karate, we often hear of someone being a third degree black belt. The expression ‘third degree’, however, has nothing to do with the world of karate: it comes from the world of the Freemasonry. A Freemason was a member of a worldwide secret society, and his main task was to help other members of his society become successful. The highest rank that one could rise to in this secret society was Master Mason, also called ‘Third Degree’. In order to become a ‘Third Degree’, one had to be ready for a test; one had to be ready to answer questions posed by the society members. It is believed that these question-answer sessions lasted for a long time, and they were rather intense in nature. Whether this was true or not, it became fixed in the public’s mind that the Third Degree was something of an ordeal; that it was brutal.

There is nothing brutal about the idioms associated with the number seven. Many of the idioms, in fact, are rather interesting: we have ‘seven day wonder’, ‘seventh heaven’, and ‘the seven year itch’! Some people believe they will be in seventh heaven by scratching the itch! Is the result merely a seven day wonder? Information will follow. Information about the idioms, I mean.

The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].

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