Sometimes different cultures can have interesting things in common. For example, the number 4 in Korean culture may remind you of the number 13 if you grew up in a Western culture. Just like 13, it symbolizes bad luck.
In the Western world we are somewhat superstitious about the number 13 as a society. It’s commonly seen as unlucky. It’s worse if it happens to be a Friday the 13th on the calendar. In fact, many high rise buildings “don’t have” a 13th floor. The elevator will offer buttons for the 12th and 14th floors, skipping the unlucky number. Even if you don’t particularly believe in it yourself, you’re probably aware of its unlucky characteristics.
While 13 doesn’t carry any particular bad vibes in Korean culture, the number 4 certainly does. This fear of the number 4 is called tetraphobia. Interestingly, it also has a very specific reason.
The number 4 and death in Korea
In the Korean language, there are some words that are pure or native Korean. Others are Sino-Korean, with origins in the Chinese language. Sino-Korean words can be represented with Hanja, characters which come from Chinese characters, as well as Korean Hangul.
The number 4 in Sino-Korean is written 사 and pronounced “sa” (with a soft “s” sound). Unfortunately, 사 is also the pronunciation for the noun “death”. While 4-사 and death-사 do not share the same Hanja character (4 is 四 and death is 死), they sound identical when spoken.
Since they sound exactly the same, in the Korean culture, the number 4 has a fairly strong association with bad luck, and even death. Because of that, the number 4 gets a similar treatment that 13 does in the Western world – avoidance.
Just like the number 13 in a Western elevator, you won’t routinely see a 4th floor in Korea. When you step on the elevator of a high rise building, you’ll see buttons for 1, 2, 3, F, 5, 6, etc. The letter F replaces the number 4 to avoid any misfortune. Often, you won’t find a room 4 in a building either. No one would want to sleep or work in a “death” room.
There are other ways you can notice a reluctance to use the number 4 in Korean culture. Table settings or gifts are often in groups of threes or fives, but not fours. You might give or receive gifts of money for 30,000 won or 50, 000 won. Not 40,000 won though.
You also won’t generally find a 4th floor in a Korean hospital either. Why temp fate in a place where people are staying to resolve heath issues?
And according to Gwangju News, even the younger generation – often seen as less superstitious than older generations – may request a phone number without the number 4 in it. Just in case.
Even if there are more people now who don’t put a lot of weight in the 4-Death connection, most will avoid the number out of respect for those who still do.
An interesting similarity
I find this superstition interesting on a personal level. For as long as I can remember, I have hated the number 4 and I have no idea why. I prefer to have 3 or 5 of something, just to avoid having 4 of them. About 20 years ago I learned that in Chinese culture, the number 4 is considered unlucky because of this association to death. Then, while learning Korean, I learned the same is true in Korean culture as well. It’s unlucky for the same reason in Japan and Taiwan too.
While I have no specific reason for disliking the number myself, it’s nice to know that when I travel to Korea someday, I won’t have to worry about being on the 4th floor of a hotel!
Do you have certain numbers that are lucky or unlucky for you? I’m all about the numbers 7, 5, and 3 but you can keep 4 away from thanks!
This post is part of the KCC Canada Honorary Reporter program.
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