November 23, 2005

Better odd than even

It's one of those curious bits of sociolinguistics that I'd never really thought about before and now becomes perfectly obvious. It started with a passage from A Thousand Leagues of Wind, in which Gobo is once again taking Shoukei to task. "You should be working three or four times as hard as everybody else," she scolds her.

What she actually says is "sanbai mo gobai mo" (三倍も五倍も), or "three or five times." This sounds quite awkward when translated literally. So, I inquired, what's wrong with four? My correspondent pointed out that odd numbers are considered lucky in Japan. Such colloquial expressions avoid even numbers the way hotels avoid the thirteenth floor.

This is not unique to the Orient. Plutarch denigrated even numbers as "defective, imperfect, and indefinite" and odd numbers as "finite, complete, and absolute." God created the world in seven days, though He did the work in six (even) and took the seventh (odd) off. Nowadays, we take days one and seven off. Hey, twice as odd!

But, still, the Japanese take their odds a bit more seriously than apparently we take Plutarch. Or Shakespeare. While Shakespeare did write in the iambic pentameter, the 5-7-5 syllabic structure of Japanese poetry has a much deeper provenance. And the Shakespearean sonnet is pretty even (fourteen lines, ending in a couplet).

Said Christ in Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." But Japanese speak of people in "threes and fives" (三三五五). The three children's holidays are called shichi-go-san, celebrating the seventh, fifth and third birthdays, and traditionally fall on March 3, May 5 and July 7.

Oddness applies to more mundane matters as well. When handing out money as gifts, make it 100 (1万円) dollars or 300 dollars (3万円), not 200 dollars (2万円). Similarly, according to my correspondent, better that a fruit basket contain five apples, not four. And dinnerware is typically sold in sets of five plates, not four or six.

Especially not four! The Chinese reading (on-yomi) for "four" is /shi/ (四), which is the same pronunciation as "death" (死). It's spooky enough that many Japanese favor the kun-yomi for the number four, yon. Well, in this context, tetraphobia does make more sense than triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

I'm still looking for a good explanation of why the baseline for counting large numbers starts with one man, or 10,000 (万), rather than 1000. A million is 100 man (100万) and a billion is 100 oku (100億). The Occidental brain ends up a factor of 10 off. That is easily the most confusing aspect of the numbering system, and luck's got nothing to do with it so far as I can tell.

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
11/24/2005 5:18 PM   
Wow, this is good to know! I knew already about "four" being an unlucky number, but never heard before of odd numbers being more "lucky" than even in Japan. Certainly good to know when giving gifts to Japanese people (just like the plants with roots to people staying in hospitals, I guess ^^; ).

Oh and I really enjoy your TK translations, I guess it would take a way longer time till I could read them by myself, all the Chinese/Chinese-based terms seen quite difficult.
So thank you so much for sharing your translations!