Calibrated Gematria

In the absence of any well-established letter-to-number mapping analogous to the Greek or Hebrew numerals, English has no one accepted form of gematria. Instead there are any number of competing systems out there, and to choose any particular one of them seems arbitrary — which is a problem, because gematria’s impressiveness depends on it’s not seeming arbitrary. I’ve tried to deal with this problem in two different ways. One is to use the simplest possible gematria code, S:E:G:, which seems less contrived than the alternatives. The other is what I call Calibrated Gematria.

Calibrated Gematria is based on the following assumptions:

  • A gematria code is a good one to the extent that it gives the “correct” numerical value for each word.
  • The only words that have an uncontroversial, objectively correct numerical value are words that refer to the numbers themselves — words such as “one,” “two,” “three,” and so on.
  • Therefore, the gematria of any given language can be “calibrated” by testing it against the set of number words in that language, modifying the letter values so as to maximize the number of such words that have the “correct” value.

Some languages will be more suitable for this than others, and English happily seems to be one of the best. (The fact that “eleven plus two” is an anagram of “twelve plus one” is a good sign, since we would want these two phrases to have the same gematria value.) A nearly perfect Calibrated Gematria is possible for English, whereas my attempts to create something similar for French and Spanish have so far been far less fruitful.

No gematria could be expected to yield the correct numbers for all the number terms in a language, since gematria is based solely on addition and cannot handle multiplication. “Sixteen” (six plus ten) and “twenty-six” (twenty plus six) are doable; “sixty” (six times ten) and “six hundred” (six times a hundred) are not. So even a “perfect” calibrated gematria could only be expected to work for numbers smaller than 30; a code can be contrived that yields the correct value for “twenty,” but one that consistently yields the right value for all number words ending in “-ty” is impossible.

To create a Calibrated Gematria, then, we write out the number words from “zero” to “twenty” and solve them as if they were algebra equations. (Since addition is the only operation gematria can support, we will use ab to mean a + b rather than a · b.)

zero = 0
one = 1
two = 2
three = thir = 3
four = 4
five = fif = 5
six = 6
seven = 7
eight = 8
nine = 9
ten = teen = een = 10
eleven = 11
twelve = 12
twenty = 20

Since teen = ten = een (as in “eight-een”), we know that e = t = 0. Those two letters can be deleted.

e = t = 0
zro = 0
on = 1
wo = 2
hr = hir = 3
four = 4
fiv = fif = 5
six = 6
svn = 7
igh = 8
nin = 9
n = 10
lvn = 11
wlv = 12
wny = 20

It becomes clear that no solution is possible. If hr = hir, then i = 0. But if i = 0, then n = 10 and nn = 9, which is impossible. One of the numbers must be sacrificed. Having tried sacrificing various numbers, I find that removing the equation thirteen = 13 causes the fewest problems. If that one equation is removed, all the remaining equations are soluble. Thirteen is, appropriately enough, jinxing the Calibrated Gematria project. I therefore remove thirteen and the equation derived from it (hir = 3) and replace it with jinx = 13. The results are as follows:

e = t = 0
f = v = 8
i = -11
j = -14
l = -7
n = 10
o = -9
s = -11
w = 11
x = 28
y = -1
zr = 9
hr = 3
ur = 5
gh = 19

A larger set of words is needed to derive a complete gematria. Specifically, the letters {a, b, c, d, k, m, p, q} are missing from the set of equations. I add a few other words with uncontroversial numerical equivalents:

ace = 1
deuce = 2
jack = 11
queen = 12
king = 13
dozen = 12
baker’s dozen = 13
plus = 0 (so that “two plus two” = 4 and so on)

Our equations are now sufficient to pin down every number except m, which I somewhat arbitrarily set to -12. This gives the correct value for “number thirteen” (which is important, since “thirteen” itself is a miss) and also makes 26 the total value for the alphabet. The final result is:

a = 6, b = 8, c = -5, d = -24, e = 0, f = 8, g = -10, h = 29, i = -11, j = -14, k = 24, l = -7, m = -12, n = 10, o = -9, p = -13, q = -29, r = -26, s = -11, t = 0, u = 31, v = 8, w = 11, x = 28, y = -1, z = 35

This code gives the correct value for every integer from 0 to 29 (with the one exception of 13) and for any “plus” statement using those numbers. A few other numerical expressions also yield the correct result just by chance:

  • half of ninety-four = 47
  • negative seven times three = -21
  • minus six times three = -18

In a later post I’ll show some of Calibrated Gematria’s other results.

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