twelve

Today was score dozen dozen dozen, which is to say 2012.12.12. Or, as people casually put it, 12/12/12 (though different people order the month, day, and year differently). Apparently this means I’m expected to to a tasting on the obvious word. Which would be twelve. (I’ll do dozen another time.)

You will notice that twelve has six letters. Of these, two are w and v, which together add to 15 (or multiply to 125) in Roman numerals; two are e and e, the fifth letter of the alphabet; one is l, which looks like the number 1; and one is t, which has a certain resemblance to both the plus sign and the Chinese character for the number 10. I’m sure if we torture the math of all that enough we can get it to cough out 12 one way or another. This is left as an exercise to the reader.

You may also find that twelve has a pretty good repertory of sounds for such a short word: only five phonemes, but it has a stop, a liquid, a glide, a vowel, and a fricative; it has an alveolar, a labiovelar, a lateral, a mid-front lax vowel, and a labiodental. It has one voiceless and three voiced consonants (but that last one is voiceless in the ordinal: twelfth). I’d say it’s a pretty good mixed assortment.

Twelve has cognates in all the Germanic languages: twaalf, zwölf, tolf, tolv, tólf. In whatever language you see it in, it’s made of a first part with a /tw/ or /to/ or similar core; this is a mutated version of the root that gives us two (and twee, zwei, et cetera). The /lv/ or /lf/ bit after that is from the same root as the /lɛv/ et cetera that you get in eleven and its kin. And that root also gives us leave. Twelve is, in its origins, two-leave, which is to say that if you take ten away you have two left over. (The first vowel in eleven is somewhat reduced and mutated from the root that gave us one.)

The thing about twelve is that it has a lot of uses. Not just for generally counting things, but in specific cultural references. Right now, of course, we’re probably in mind of the twelve days of Christmas (which start on December 25 and are capped with Epiphany on January 6). Somehow there are twelve drummers drumming. There are also twelve apostles and twelve people on a jury. There are twelve stars on the EU flag. There used to be twelve provinces and territories in Canada, but we’ll have none of it now: we have thirteen with Nunavut now. There are books, movies, albums, all named Twelve or 12. I’m listening to twelve by Patti Smith right now.

There were twelve Olympians among the Greek gods. King Arthur had twelve knights at his round table. The Norse god Odin had twelve sons. So did Jacob, a.k.a. Israel; those sons were the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs in the western zodiac, twelve signs (in a twelve-year cycle) in the Chinese zodiac, and twelve hours from midnight to noon and again from noon to midnight.

There are twelve ounces in a pound troy (sixteen in an avoirdupois pound, of course – this is why a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold: feathers are measured in avoirdupois, gold in troy); twelve inches in a foot; there used to be twelve pence to a shilling (and twenty shillings to a pound, which would have made 2012 a nice monetary year). There are twelve bottles (or beer or wine) in a case, twelve eggs in a carton. There are twelve face cards in a deck of cards (not including the joker), twelve steps in an addiction recovery program, twelve pairs of ribs in a normal human body. Twelve people have walked on the moon… so far.

Twelve also has a huge number of collocations. Here is the list just of those starting with twelve contained in the entry for twelve in the Oxford English Dictionary: twelve-banded, twelve-bore, twelve-button, twelve-candle, twelve-cut, the twelve days, twelve-divided, twelve-eight, Twelve eve, twelve-feet, twelve-foot, twelve-footed, twelve-fruited, twelve-gated, twelve-gauge, twelve-gemmed, twelve-head, twelve-headed, twelve-hole, twelve-horse, twelve-hour, twelve hours, twelve-inch, twelve-labour, twelve-legged, the twelve men, twelve-mile, twelve moons, twelve-note, twelve-oared, twelve o’clock, twelve-pint, twelve-point sphere, twelve-pound, twelve-pounder, twelve-rayed, twelve score, twelve score prick, twelve-shilling, twelve-sided, twelve-starred, twelve-stone, twelve-stranded, Twelve Tables, the twelve, twelve-thread, twelve-tide, twelve-tone, twelve-toner, twelve-towered, and twelve-yearly.

That looks like quite a lot of rough water, doesn’t it? The w’s and v’s like choppy waves (not velvety at all), but the e’s like flotsam and the t’s and l’s like jetsam – and hidden in all that is so many elves.

With all that, anyway, it’s small wonder that twelve shows up here and there with some of its flavour in works of literature and theatre. It serves well in poetry as the largest number you can fit in one syllable. Wordsworth spoke of travelling “twelve stout miles”; A.E. Housman spoke of “yon twelve-winded sky”; Thackeray wrote, “I’d say, we suffer and we strive, / Not less or more as men than boys; / With grizzled beards at forty-five, / As erst at twelve in corduroys.” While Wordsworth had “Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,” Stedman had “she sank in twelve feet of water or more.” Many have written of twelve months, or twelve men of a jury, or twelve o’clock. Shakespeare did: “Upon the platform, ’twixt eleven and twelve” (Hamlet); “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); “The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life, / May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two / Guiltier than him they try” (Measure for Measure). And of course he wrote Twelfth-Night.

But the revelries of Twelfth Night are still in the future as I write this, and the next Twelfth Night – January 5 – is in 2013. It all falls apart, just as 12 decomposes one way into 2 and 6 or 3 and 4 or, at base, 2 and 2 and 3, and another way into 1, 2, 3, 4, and 2 again, or 3 3 3 3 or 2 2 2 2 2 2. Or into the product of 1! and 2! and 3! – or or or or. But if you don’t want to make fine distinctions, make a gross one: twelve twelves, 144, one gross. And 12 times 12 times 12 is 1768; 1, 7, 6, and 8 multiply to make 336, and 3 and 3 and 6 add to make 12. And so we are back where we started.

Which is 12. Or about 12 minutes to it, which is the time now as I finish writing this. Enough of these twelves.

2 responses to “twelve

  1. Ashtar Balynestry

    Actually 12 cubed is 1728, not 1768.

    • Ach. What I get for doing it in my head. Now, let’s see… 1, 7, 2, and 8 add up to 18… they multiply to make 112… those can be tortured into 12 as necessary… 12 to the fourth power is 20736, which also adds up to 18… The square root of 12 is 3.46410161514, which is a cute number with that 16-15-14, but, ah, never mind…

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