Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Numerals, especially the number nine, in folklore and language

In fairy tales and legends, most things happen three times. There are three brothers and three daughters; the protagonist faces three trials; only the third attempt brings success; and so forth. According to someone’s joke, ever since Caesar divided Gaul into three parts, everything has been divided in the same way. But perhaps the same would have happened without the opening line of De Bello Gallico (The Gaulic Wars). After all, the boundaries between youth, “midlife” (with or without its crises), and old age are hard to miss. From today’s vantage point, the history of English falls into three periods: Old, Middle, and Modern. German fares no better, but the Scandinavian languages are partly immune to this tripartite tyranny. Most likely, Caesar instinctively followed the pattern that had existed long before him.

Our predilection for twelve goes back to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We still buy a dozen eggs and have twelve hours in the day. Jesus had twelve disciples, and in the Icelandic sagas, a chieftain is usually accompanied by twelve companions. In those tales, the word hundred usually means “long hundred;” that is, 120. Duodecimal counting is familiar to many. Other favorite numerals are sometimes harder to explain. In the Grimms’ tale, there are seven dwarfs, and the wolf attacks seven kids. Likewise, Russian proverbial sayings revolve around seven of everything. American Indian folklore celebrates the number four. But today my topic is “nine.” In the past, I have discussed the odd idiom it takes nine tailors to make a man (April 6, 2016) and nine of diamonds, the curse of Scotland (three posts: November 15, 2017; November 22, 2017, and December 6, 2017). There are quite a few more.

Ninepence, neat and nimble. Image credit: “Post Medieval Siege Piece Ninepence” by The Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SAY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Rather instructive is the popularity of the word ninepence. I’ll begin by quoting a passage from John Gough Nichols’s article in the journal Numismatic Chronicle, vol. II, 1840, p. 84, as I found it in The Century Dictionary: “The nine-pence was a coin formerly much favoured by faithful lovers in humble life as a token of their mutual attachment. It was for this purpose broken into two pieces, and each party preserved with care one portion, until, on their meeting again, they hastened to renew their vows.” This custom was in use for centuries. Here is a note from the 1818 edition of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras: “Until the year 1696, when all money not milled was called in, a ninepenny piece of silver was as common as sixpences and shillings, and these ninepences were usually bent, as sixpences commonly are now, which bending was called ‘To my love’ and ‘From my love’; and such ninepences the ordinary fellows gave or sent to their sweethearts as tokens of love.” It is not the first time that I have a chance to refer to Hudibras. It is a very long poem, but reading it “in installments” is sheer delight.

There was (or still is?) the proverbial saying give the old woman her ninepence. Perhaps it suggested that old women also deserve love, but a more prosaic and less sentimental explanation has been offered: “When labourers got a shilling a day the wife got ninepence of it, and the husband retained threepence for his own expenses.” Even so, it is characteristic that the sum of twelve pence (a shilling) was divided into three and nine.

Menshikov, Peter I’s former minion, in exile: a noble brought to ninepence. Image credit: “Menshikov in Berezovo” by Wassilij Iwanowitsch Surikov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

People said a grand ninepence, a right ninepence, and an easy ninepence, but especially attractive were two alliterative phrases: a neat ninepence and a nimble ninepence. In idioms, the owner of such a valuable coin was sometimes given the name of Nancy. The very triumph of alliteration is the locution to bring a noble to nine-pence and nine-pence to nothing (said about persons living beyond their means). Its variant is his noble has come down to nine-pence, also said about a person who has been brought down in the world, and from a state which in his estimation had been rather an important one. People said so as early as the sixteenth century, and it looks as though some of those phrases do not predate the fifteen sixties. (A word of warning may not be out of place here. When in trouble with the origin of such idioms, don’t be in a hurry to refer ninepence to ninepins: the two have nothing in common.)

My collection contains several other specimens of curious “number phrases,” but I’ll quote only one more (Irish) simile: “As narrow in the nose as a pig at ninepence.” It was recorded in 1862, and I have not seen an explanation for it. The riddle may have a simple solution. In Russian, the pig’s snout is called piatachok (stress on the last syllable), literally, “a five-kopeck coin.” Could the association in English be similar? An equally colorful phrase is the Americanism seven by nine politician. (Never mind Seven of Nine.) In my database, I find the comment to the effect that seven-by-nine is generally applied to a laugh or smile of latitude more than usually benignant, “as if measuring the length and width thereof at the same time playing upon the word benign.” This comment is rather vague. But a 1909 note from Connecticut on a seven by nine politician sounds reliable. The correspondent defined such a person as “a man of too limited abilities, force, or outlook to cut much of any.” The phrase, he added, refers to the old-fashioned windowpanes, before the time when glass filling the whole or half of the sash was common; these were “seven-by nine” in hundreds of thousands of farm or village houses. Similar names were two-cent or two-for-a-cent or huckleberry (whortleberry) politician, the last having the same implication as peanut: one who peddled huckleberries by the quart. Political slang is volatile, and it is no wonder that today an expression common a century ago arouses no associations.

Poor child: Dressed to the nines for the sake of royal etiquette. Image credit: “Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress (1659)” by Diego Velázquez. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nine is a pervasive element in all kinds of sayings. Some are still known or at least understood, for instance, to be dressed up to the nines. The explanation of the nines as going back to the eyne, that is, “to the eyes,” seems more realistic than the reference to nine Muses, but, sure enough, there were three Graces and nine Muses in the ancient world. In Lancashire, to look nine ways for Sunday used to mean “to be completely at a loss,” and the phrase possession is nine points of the law occurred, according to the OED, as early as 1616. This phrase aroused James A. H. Murray’s special interest (Notes and Queries 10/VII, p. 200). It has been discussed many times since.

Whence, I repeat, this fascination with nine? Why should it have been nine (just nine) days’ wonder? It has been more or less convincingly explained why we are sometimes in seventh heaven, but why on Cloud Nine? The existing conjectures should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Catch 22 has an undisputed origin, to be at sixes and sevens is less clear, and the same holds for most such idioms. If I had nine lives, I might go the whole nine yards and write a comprehensive etymological dictionary of English idioms, but, being pressed for time, I have collected the little that came my way and will present this fruit of my loom to the public in the nearest future.

At sixes ans sevens. Image credit: “Chaos Room” by levelord. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

Featured image: “The Nine Muses” by Lodewijk Toeput. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Liberman, Anatoly (2019), ‘Numerals, especially the number nine, in folklore and language’, Oxford University Press blog, https://blog.oup.com/2019/06/number-nine-numerals-folklore-language/. […]

Comments are closed.