Not for nothing are letters and numbers called characters, as Saul Steinberg appreciated when he drew them as personalities. ‘5 and 2 might happily get into bed together,’ but ‘1, 4 and 7 have no sex appeal.’ The most primitive societies only have three number words: one, two, and many. For assessing quantities of things they have special expressions. For example, Australian Aborigines say a ‘five-dog night’ is the coldest you can be and the Chinese say a forest is a ‘triplet of trees’.
The ancient Greeks used letters to count. A represented 1, B was 2, and so on. When they got to the end of their twenty-four letter alphabet they began again, so AA stood for 25, AB for 26. The Romans inherited the method of using letters to simplify matters, introducing particular letters for particular quantities. V for 5, L for 50, and so on. Nowadays we can count in millions, billions, milliards, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions etc. (oh, and gigabytes). But numbers must be relative to what one can comprehend.
The value of nothing ranks among man’s greatest intellectual discoveries. The Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on arithmetic was the first book to explain the operation of decimal numerals. The word zero comes from the Arabic sifr (empty) and algebra from al-jabr, which loosely translates as ‘bringing together broken parts’. The Arabs introduced numerals into Europe in the twelfth century, and the Italian mathematician Fibonacci wrote about a new sign called zephirum which signified absence by presence. The 0 is nought and naught, nothing, nil, and in tennis – love!
‘Four is an interesting number because it is a shape that would arouse the curiosity of a cat,’ wrote Steinberg. ‘ ‘Most numbers are either open or closed. Number 8, for instance is closed; a cat has no business to look inside. A cat likes to peer into something that is half open – a little bit open – a mystery. Number 3 is obvious, number 1 is nothing, 5 perhaps is more intriguing, but 4 certainly is perfectly designed and engineered for a cat to look inside and find out what is going on.’
But why 3 cheers, 3 little pigs, 3 wishes and 3 wise men (answers on a postcard please)? Apart from fingers and toes, 5 loaves fed the multitude and the owl and the pussycat went to sea with their worldly goods wrapped in a fiver. The world was made in 7 days. Then there’s cloud 9. It’s a game anyone can play or as Isidore of Seville said in (c.600 AD):
‘Take from all things their number, and all shall perish.’