What’s so unlucky about number thirteen?

Published 10:39 am Thursday, October 12, 2017

One of my minor hobbies as a nerdy high school student was learning impressive-sounding big words. My friends and I liked weird words with weird definitions like “defenestrate,” which means simply “to throw someone out of a window.”

My personal favorite, however, (based mostly on pronunciation honestly) was “triskaidekaphobia” which is the fear of the number 13. With October, the month of spookiness, actually having a “Friday the 13th” this year, I started thinking about the word again.

Seems kind of silly to be afraid of a number, but the superstition that 13 is unlucky is still prevalent today. It’s not usual to see a few people try to avoid the number whenever possible in order to prevent some terrible calamity. Some high-rise buildings skip putting the number on the thirteenth floor, though anyone should realize that a missing label doesn’t actually change how many floors there are.

There’s even a whole series of horror movies named “Friday the 13th,” ensuring that the superstition won’t fade from our minds any time soon.

The origin of the fear is speculated to have come from Jesus’s Last Supper, with Judas being the thirteenth person in attendance, and therefore, his position as the traitor cast a bad shadow over the number. Jesus’s crucifixion taking place on a Friday apparently helped create the myth that Friday the 13th was unlucky as well.

Another explanation for the number’s negative connotations is that it’s simply the one which comes after number 12. We’re used to seeing 12 hours on an analog clock, 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the Zodiac, etc, etc. Twelve oftentimes seems to mark an end of a cycle, so adding one more unit to make 13 just seems out of the ordinary.

And if you think this is strange, there are actually names for other number phobias as well.

“Tetraphobia” is the fear of the number four. In Chinese (and a few other Asian languages), the words for “four” and “death” are pronounced almost identically. Like triskaidekaphobia, the Asian equivalent isn’t much more than a silly superstition as well. The word similarity is truly just a coincidence.

For even more ridiculousness, someone actually came up with a word for fear of the number 666. Have fun trying to pronounce “hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.” Rather than from the number itself, I think I’m breaking out in a sweat just trying to navigate all those syllables.

For a more encompassing word, “numerophobia” refers to the fear of dealing with numbers in general. Now that’s a fear I can understand because math always makes my head spin. I’d like to avoid that as much as possible.

Whether you cling to superstitions or think they’re utterly nonsensical, it doesn’t look like we’ll change our ways any time soon. We’ll probably still make jokes about how unlucky Friday the 13th is, and we probably will still be a little extra cautious whenever that day rolls around, whether we suffer from triskaidekaphobia or not.


Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or by phone at 252-332-7206.