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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2 thoughts on “The Connotations of Numbers

  1. Surely they were speaking in a relative sense rather than an absolute sense. Numbers do have connotations. It is more the case for ancient writers. But even today there can be subtle and not so subtle meanings for numbers. Say, I had Alice Jewell for both semesters of Freshman English at Harding. We studied S. I. Hayakawa’s “Language in Thought and Action”. He helped me learn to see things underneath the surface meaning of words and symbols. Whatever modest success I’ve achieved in my professional life owe’s a lot to that book. Haven’t read it in forty plus years, but, inspired by your post, I decided to get me a used copy on Amazon and review.

    • Maybe they were speaking relatively, but my deep and abiding dislike for the book makes me reluctant to cut them any slack. I suppose that is a less than objective means of evaluation.

      Meanwhile, my wife had Alice Jewell for English at Harding nothing like forty plus years ago. It’s amazing the longevity of some of the professor there. I fear that is a dying breed in higher education (although, for my sake, I hope not).

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