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.
A couple of weeks ago (on a Friday), a student told me that she had gone to see the movie “Thor” the day before and was raving about how good it was. So I said, “Well then, it’s a happy coincidence that you saw the movie on Thor Day.”
This led to a discussion on how days of the week were named after planets and gods. Sunday and Monday, of course, are immediately recognized as being named after the Sun and the Moon.
And as per our discussion, Thursday was named after that hammer wielding beastie-boy, Thor.
But I was surprised that one of my students knew that the prefix “frigga” came from the Norse goddess Frigg (wife of Odin and spinner of clouds), whose name gave us Friday. Our high school does very well at motivating our students to learn not only the etymology of words, but the rich history that colors their formation.
This is what makes teaching so much fun. I often find myself learning from my students. I had only a scant knowledge of Frigg and so my student started telling me various stories about Frigg, including one in which she inadvertently contributed to the death of Baldr (a son of Odin).
There doesn’t seem to be a lot known about Baldr other than the fact that he was killed by mistletoe. He was immune to weapons such as arrows and spears, but those nasty mistletoes can really nail you if you’re not careful.
Which brings me back to friggatriskaidekaphobia. Maybe it’s reasonable to be afraid of mistletoes, but it seems just plain silly to be afraid of a number.
Fear is, however, sometimes very justified. For example, fear (and greed) ruled the day last week on “Trample Them Thursday”, followed by “Frenzied Fighting Friday” (also known as Black Friday) as agitated shoppers valiantly fought each other to save $5 on a George Foreman sandwich grill.
It was a tribute to the holiday spirit as families across the nation celebrated on Thursday to give thanks for all that they had, and then rush out to stampede over strangers in order to buy something they didn’t need. Screaming, arguments, shoving and fistfights were of course the side dish of the day. People were pepper sprayed. Several were trampled. One man was stabbed and another was shot. In recent years, several people have been killed while trying to secure a Black Friday sale item.
And so the goddess Frigg took a break from spinning clouds and came down to bestow upon us a new word, one designed to capture the true spirit of the season.
Friggamelanothantophobia — the fear of being trampled to death on Black Friday by manic shoppers.
When asked what I’m thankful for, I have to say without hesitation — “I’m just glad Thanksgiving only comes once a year.”