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Fear of '13' and origins of words

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By John Pawlak

A fun aspect of teaching math is that I get to share stories about numbers with my students. The number “13” of course holds a special place in society and students love learning words like triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13). I explain to them that “tris” means “three” and “dek” means “ten.”
This gives me the opportunity to demonstrate how words contain numerical prefixes taken from Latin and Greek, using these prefixes to define properties of cardinality, such as bi-cycle, cent-ennial, and sex-agenarian (one of my favorites!).
Other favorites of mine are the months Sept-ember, Oct-ober, Nov-ember and Dec-ember. I get to tell my students how October got its name, it being the eighth month of the year and “oct” means “eight,” as in octopus or octagon.
It always takes a minute or two for one of them to realize that October is the 10th month of the year, and then I get to talk about the history and mathematics of calendars and dates.
Now, we have a Friday the 13th approaching in December. So I’ll get to use the word friggatriskaidekaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th). But in this case, the prefix “frigga” has nothing to do with numbers.


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