Word of the Day: twelve

Word of the Day: twelve December 28, 2013

Word of the Day: twelve


One of the sad losses as Western man moved from liturgical time to secular time has been the festal season. We have shopping periods, with no special beginning or end, stretching farther and farther out away from Christmas Day or Easter, losing all connection to the feast, and bringing in their wake not festivity but weariness and ennui.


A far cry from the twelve days of Christmas celebrated in western Europe, from the day of the Nativity to the feast of Epiphany, January 6 (which is the day celebrated as Nativity in the eastern churches). Our only memory of this blessed time for remembering and celebrating all the events surrounding the birth of Christ, His circumcision, and His manifestation to all nations as represented by the three wise men, lies like a fly in amber in the old carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” probably the most parodied carol of them all, at that. Yet the sheer exuberance of the gift-giving in that carol well reflects the greatest gift God has given to man, namely His Son, God-with-us, Emmanu-El, the Word made Flesh. And those of us who still read Shakespeare may remember his merry comedy, Twelfth Night, named for the night of January 5, the eve of Epiphany, when all the merriment of Christmastide came to a boisterous and joyful climax.


It is not his only play that is implicitly related in some fashion to Christmas: Measure for Measure was performed before King James on Saint Stephen’s Day, and takes as its theme not only Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, but Psalm 85, the psalm for the day: “Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Those loving virtues were called by the jaunty folk of the Middle Ages the “Four Daughters of God.” Then there is his romance Cymbeline, set during the reign of the English king who held the throne at the time when Jesus was born, and whose hero is Postumus Leonatus, Born of the Lion. We might add the wintry As You Like It, too.


Anyway, it’s good to have twelve days of Christmastide, and not just the one day; and I see as I drive around the neighborhood, by the dead trees left on the side of the road, that there are plenty of sad households apparently trying to sleep off the Christmas hangover and breathe a great sigh of relief that it’s over and it won’t be coming round for another year. At our house, the tree is staying up till Candlemas. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to keep it up if it were a real tree, but even so we wouldn’t be moving it out till Epiphany at the earliest. Life will bring us many a sorrow and disappointment; why cast the feast aside, then?


Today’s word twelve is an odd bird. It means, literally, two left, that is, two left over after you’ve counted out ten, just as eleven is one left; cf. German zwoelf, elf. The pronunciation of twelve suggests that we once did pronounce the w in two: Old English twa; the w sound was absorbed into the very similar back vowel; cf. sword. After twelve, we simply counted ten-and: three and ten = thirteen, four and ten = fourteen, and so forth. But in most languages, the numbers eleven and twelve are already one and ten and two and ten: Latin duodecim, Italian dodici, Welsh deuddeg. Twelve’s a fine number for counting, since it’s all your fingers and your two hands, and since it is divisible by six, four, three, and two. That’s why we still have survivals of a twelve-system, a duodecimal system, in various of our measurements: the dozen (cf. French douze, twelve), the 360 degrees in a circle, the twelve months, the 24 hours of the day, the 60 minutes in an hour, and the 60 seconds in a minute.


A question. In our base ten numeral system, you can check to see if a number is divisible by 9 (or 3) by adding its digits. If and only if the sum of the digits is divisible by 9 (or 3), then the number itself is so divisible. What about in a base twelve numeral system? It no longer holds true. In that system, the method will work – but for 11, not 3 or 9. In general: in a base X system, the divisibility rule works for X-1 and its factors.

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