Monday, October 22, 2012

The Connotations of Numbers

I came across a curious quotation while reading Barzun and Graff's The Modern Researcher:

Unlike numbers, words have connotations, overtones--the power of suggesting more than they really say.

That's an odd suggestion, particularly considering that only pages before reference is made to the significance of 3, 7, and 12 in Western history. Consider, as an example, 666. The number denotes nothing other than a quantity one more than 665 and one less than 667. Yet, culturally, we understand there to be something sinister about this number, and its appearance in our daily lives is often intentionally ominous. To a lesser but no less real extent, the number 13 functions in a similar way. Though not exclusively so. With no more than a simple familiarity with the film, or even just the cover art, most observers will understand what is mean by the title of the movie "Thirteen." It connotes to us something much more than merely one year older than twelve, one year younger than fourteen.

Though merely a passing comment, the above quote misses the critical truth that all means of communication carry with them both a concrete, narrowly definable meaning and a complex of unspoken, amorphous associations which inform their use. This is true of words and numbers, not to mention gestures and images.

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