Thursday, June 08, 2006

What’s the word for the fear of having to say ‘Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia’?

Would it be facetious if I were to thank all those who prayed on 6/6/6 for the fact that Armageddon has not begun (despite Shrub and Co.’s best efforts in the Middle East)? I guess it would be, wouldn’t it. We’ve had so many ends of the world predicted that I should like to see someone predict that some particular end of the world will be the last end of the world prediction we have to put up with. That way I could justify having a t-shirt saying “The end of the end of the world is coming!” In which case I might get one made up. Thankfully, this particular insanity is one that largely passed us by. Indeed, the only evidence I saw of it were news reports from abroad. It is a very good thing that the alleged number of the beast is so large else, between it and 13, floor-plans of high-rises would look ridiculous. Then again, what about all of the other numbers which have unlucky connotation somewhere? I can just imagine the lift in a particularly superstitious multinational company... No thirteenth floor, of course. But, also, no fourth floor as that is considered unlucky by the Chinese. The Japanese don’t much like it either, as well as not liking 9, so no ninth floor. By the time you consider all of the different world superstitions you get something like the following numbers for floors: Ground (but don’t say ‘zero’), 38, 127, 411,412, 456, 465. And that’s only a seven-storey building.

The tenacity of superstition is quite astounding and seems to me to point to something that must be a very deeply ingrained part of our psyche. And it is often very difficult to know what to do when you come across it. Thus, for example, the other day (not the 6th) my wife stopped the car when she was driving and the road was crossed by a black cat. She simply refused to drive on that way and wanted to turn the car around and go another way. In the end I drove the car on while she walked through a park and we met up a hundred metres later. I did not mention to her that she almost definitely crossed the cat’s path in the park. What was particularly striking was how ill that superstition fits with her generally reasonable character, especially given how strident she was about holding on to it. Then again, I think it would be false for any of us to say that we harbour no superstitions at all, even if we go out of our way to counter any of which we are aware. The question I keep coming back to is what is the difference between normal irrational or badly justified beliefs and superstitions. There does seem to be a significant difference, partly visible in the way people cling to superstitions where they are normally willing to adjust other beliefs given even weak evidence. It seems to me that the issue is grounded fairly deeply and any answer to it would have to rely on a profound understanding of ourselves of the type that we sorely lack.


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