Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Luck and Languages: Superstition Around the World

As today is the 13th, an unlucky number for some, I thought I'd delve a little deeper into how fortune and luck differs across languages. It seems that numbers play a huge role in superstition, and since there are plenty of countable objects that we deal with in everyday life, numbers seem to have made their way into the superstitions of almost every culture.

I won't get through them all today because almost anything can be considered lucky or unlucky, so I thought I'd just pick out a few of the most interesting numbers associated with luck.


Numbers are everywhere when it comes to fortune and misfortune. The number 4 is considered to be terribly unlucky in the Chinese culture and gives rise to tetraphobia. In Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Hakka, Min Nan, Japanese, and Korean, the pronunciation of the number 4 is very similar to the word for "death".

The luckiest garden ever.
Those aware of the superstitions related to the number 13 in Western cultures (which I'll get to shortly) will be familiar with the practice of avoiding specific numbers. In the cultures where the aforementioned languages are traditionally spoken, particularly South East Asia, the number (and even digit) 4 is avoided when possible, especially when numbering floors, doors, parking spaces, etc.

Despite 4's misfortune in Asia, in Irish and Celtic cultures, the four-leaf clover is said to be a sign of considerable fortune.


The number 7 is often considered to be very lucky, especially in prominent world religions. The Old Testament frequently references the  number 7, such as the creation of the world in 7 days in the Book of Genesis. In Judaism, the menorah has 7 branches, while in Islam, the earth is composed of 7 layers. Japanese mythology also features 7 lucky gods. The list goes on and on...


Just as the number 4 in Mandarin sounds like the word for "death", the number 8 also has a similar-sounding counterpart. However, unlike the number 4, the number 8 is considered to bring about good fortune. This is because the number 8 in Mandarin sounds like "fortune" or "prosper", following a rule can seemingly be applied to a whole host of numbers in Chinese.

The luckiness of the number 8 also dictates all kinds of behaviours by both people and companies, who love to use the digit "8" in any way they possibly can. For example, Sichuan Airlines paid a hefty sum for a phone number that consisted only of 8s, and the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games started on the 8th August at 8 p.m. local time.


In many English-speaking cultures, 13 is considered to be an unlucky number, so much so that it has its own phobia, triskaidekaphobia. The term itself, like most fears and phobias, is named using Greek words. There are a number of suggestions as to why 13 is considered to be unlucky, including the number of people at the Last Supper, the date of the arrest order for the Knights Templar, and the number of full moons in a year.

However, this superstition goes even further, especially in several Western cultures, if the 13th day of the calendar month coincides with a Friday, making the dreaded Friday the 13th.

Friday the 13th

It is suggested that Friday the 13th is considered to be unlucky due to the number's prominence in the story of Jesus: 13 people (12 disciples and Jesus himself) were at the Last Supper, plus the fact that Jesus was killed on the Friday. If you are inexplicably terrified of Friday the 13th, you may have paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Tuesday the 13th

While I grew up with the knowledge that Friday the 13th was an unfortunate day, if you grew up in a Spanish- or Greek-speaking culture or country, you'll probably consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unlucky day.

What numbers are considered lucky and unlucky in your language or culture? Tell us about them and the reasons why they're lucky or unlucky in the comments below!

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