Archive for category Watchword of the Day

13 Thirteen Words

7b4062_52854e43983447faa496c68f9a653bb4The number thirteen has long held a special attraction. Thirteen is a prime number, a Fibonacci number, and a happy number (calculated for any positive integer as the sum of the squares of its digits, repeated until the process either equals one [a happy number] or endlessly loops [unhappy number]).

Thirteen is the age in Judaism in which a boy becomes a man and full member of the Jewish faith through the Bar Mitzvah. A thirteenth anniversary is called a tredecennial(1) or tridecennary(2) (tridecennary can also apply to a period of thirteen years). A triskaidecago(3) is a polygon with thirteen sides (also called a tridecagon(4)). A clutch(5) is a unit of count equal to thirteen (typically concerning eggs), and a devil’s dozen(6) may also refer to a count of thirteen. And the thirteen offsprings of a single birthing are known as tredecaplets(7).

Thirteen also has many sinister meanings, such as the number of witches in a coven(8), and  Sizdah Be-dar, the thirteenth day of the Zoroastrian new year which is held to be a day in which evil exerted great power and people traditionally retreated to countryside in an effort to avoid any ill effects commonly associated with life in urban areas. And XIII is the tarot card of death.

We more famously associate the fifteenth of the month with the ancient Roman term ides, because of Caesar’s famous run-in at the Senate on the ides of March (March 15th), but on only four months of the year did the ides fall on the fifteenth; on the other eight months they fell on the thirteenth, so the unlucky connotation of ides is associated with both the numbers 15 and 13.

Over the years, the number thirteen has increasingly become associated with ill luck. So much so, there’s even a word (actually two) for the morbid fear of the number thirteen: triskaidekaphobia(9) or tridecaphobia(10). There’s a number of theories for how thirteen came upon this unfortunate reputation, but the true reason isn’t actually known. Some believe it relates to the thirteen attendees at Jesus’ Last Supper, the thirteenth being Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ. Also, some years have thirteen full moon cycles (about one-third do), instead of the usual twelve, which was considered unlucky because it upset the timing of certain religious moveable feasts, such as Easter (see Some people even believe the tradition of considering thirteen as unlucky goes all the way back to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, dating around 1780 BC, in which the thirteenth code deals with circumstances associated with an individual’s death.

And of course, Friday the thirteenth has its own tradition as a luckless time.  There’s even a term for the fear of this auspicious day: paraskevidekatriaphobia(11).

On a lighter note, back around 1266 in England, Henry III revived a statute regulating the price of bread based on the weight of a standard loaf. In tough economic times or in times of bread shortages, bakers were known to shirk the law by baking smaller loaves. This was illegal and some bakers ended up in the goal or publicly flogged for their illicit behavior. So the story goes that bakers began adding a little extra slice to each loaf, and a full extra loaf to orders of a dozen loaves. The thinking was that this practice would offset any inadvertent shortage of weight. As you have probably guessed, this tradition became known as a baker’s dozen(12), or thirteen for the price of twelve. And a little word trivia−the thirteenth item in a baker’s dozen is known as the advantage.

In a similar vein, any unexpected free gift received with purchase is now known by several terms: brotuspilon (from the Southwest U.S.), and from Louisianna we get lagniappe (also spelled lagnappe) which can also mean a bribe or a tip. I can remember merchants doing this a lot more when I was growing up than they do now, but maybe free shipping is today’s rough version of a brotus.

Falling somewhere between a baker’s dozen and a brotus is a poulter’s measure. Beginning at least several centuries ago, poulters (those who farm poultry) began the practice of giving away two additional eggs for every second dozen ordered. So, the first dozen ordered brought you twelve eggs and the second, fourteen. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the average was thirteen but the extra amount wasn’t added on until that extra order. This is like a baker’s dozen with a catch. At some point, a type of poem having alternate lines of verse consisting of twelve and fourteen syllables also became known a poulter’s measure.

Italians seem to buck the trend and consider thirteen as a lucky number, where fare tredici (13) (literally, “to do 13”) means to hit the jackpot.

Regardless of whether you are superstitious, prudently cautious, or one of those willing to throw caution to the wind and embrace all numbers as equals, thirteen has a rich and proud history. But I would definitely urge caution when purchasing a dozen donuts if the ides of January, February, April, June, August, September, November, or December fall on Friday the thirteenth of the tredecennial of your thirteenth birthday.


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More on flags

flag half mast

Today’s Watchword of the Day continues this week’s flag theme and actually includes three separate but related words that all deal with vertically hoisting the flag up and down the pole.  By the way, did you know that when raising a flag to half-staff (same as half-mast), you first raise the flag to the top of the pole, then lower it either to two-thirds of its normal height or by the width of the flag?  And, when lowering a flag flying at half-staff, you once again raise it to the top of the pole before lowering.

dipping n. a form of saluting with a flag by lowering it almost to the ground, then raising it back up a flagstaff to its original position.

strike vi. to lower a flag as a sign of surrender.

trailing n. an uncommon method of flag saluting whereby the flag is lowered to lightly touch the ground, then immediately hoisted back up the staff.

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cantonIn today’s Watchword of the Day, following this week’s flag theme, comes the word that can be used to describe the particular area of design in many flags, including the U.S. national flag, and the flags of Australia, New Zealand, and the People’s Republic of China.  (The picture at right is the Royal Air Force ensign of India.)

canton n. the upper corner of a flag adjacent to the staff; typically where a special design, such as a union, is placed.

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Courtesy Flag2Continuing with this week’s theme of flags is today’s entry (actually, Tuesday’s entry – I have been experiencing some technical difficulties).

courtesy n. a small version of a host country’s national or maritime flag, flown as a sign of respect by a foreign ship while cruising in the host country’s waters; typically flown from the foremasthead of multi-masted ships, or from the starboard spreader of single-masted ships, or from the bow staff of ships with no mast.

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gonfalonI thought I would try something different.  Each day this week, I will be posting a Watchword of the Day that pertains to a selected subject.  This week’s subject is flags. In future weeks, I would like to post words that pertain to subjects that you, the reader, request.  So that’s an open invitation for you to make your requests – first come, first served.  It can be anything at all, such as “words relating to horse colors,” or “words ending in ‘ism’,” or “old Hebraic measurement words.” The more arcane, the better.  I’ll see what I can come up with.

gonfalon n. a flag or banner hung from a horizontal bar, often accompanied by streamers and tails.

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white feather

white-featherwhite feather n. a mark or symbol of cowardice; this term is derived from the superstition that a gamecock having a white feather in its  plumage indicates a poor fighter.

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hebdomad n. 1. the number seven.  2. a group of seven.  3. seven consecutive days; a week.

sevenIt’s been a long hebdomad. From the Greek root hebdomos, which means seventh, comes a nice substitute word for week, or the number seven.  The Romans incorporated the word into the term dies hebdomadis, meaning day of the week, but later dropped the use of hebdomas as a week for the term septimana, which gives us September, the seventh Roman month.

Some related words include hebdomadal – as a noun, a weekly publication, or as an adjective, something lasting one week or occurring weekly.  From the Roman Catholic religion we also get hebdomadary, a church or monastery member appointed to sing the chapter Mass and lead in the recitations for one week.  Back in the mid-19th century, the powers that be at Oxford University formed the Hebdomadal Council, a group that provided financial and managerial oversight to the university until its dissolution in 2000.  What’s interesting is that this group met regularly during the school term, not every week, as the name implies, but every two weeks.  Perhaps the Oxford dons needed a short reminder course in Greek.

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