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Tetraphobia: Fear of the Number 4 in South Korea

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Do you know what tetraphobia means? It means ‘fear of four’ in Greek: a combination of the Greek words tetra (the number 4) and phobia (fear). You might be shocked to find that tetraphobia is fairly common throughout the many Asian countries such as, China Japan, and Korea.

Missing_Floor_4.JPG

As some believe the number 13 has the unlucky connotation in the western cultures, many have 미신 (superstitions) about the number 4 in 한국 (South Korea).

  • 4자 기피  [sa-jja-gi-pi]  –  tetraphobia: fear of the number four
  • 13 층  [sip-sam-cheung] – 13th floor
  • 호텔 엘리베이터  [ho-tel-el-li-be-ee-tuh] –  hotel elevator
  • 12  [sip-ee-cheung]  –   12th floor
  • 14   [sip-sa-cheung]  – 14th floor
  • 미신 [mi-shin]  – superstition
  • 한국  [han-gook]  – South Korea

Why do Korean people have  4자 기피 (tetraphobia)

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, many Asian countries, including South Korea, consider the number 4 as unlucky. The reason for  4자 기피 (tetraphobia) is because ‘사 (the number 4 in Sino-Korean)’ and the Sino-Korean word for ‘사 (death)’ are homophones.

  • 사 [sa] – ‘the number 4’ in Sino-Korean
  • 사 [sa] –  Sino-Korean word for death’

Whether you are living or traveling in South Korea, you will notice 4자 기피 (tetraphobia) is permeated in many dimensions of the South Korean culture. Especially many elevators in the South Korean 병원 (hospitals) do not have the 4th floor; or the English letter ‘F’ represents the 4th floor in the buildings. People also avoid giving four blocks of  gifts for celebratory occasions, such as  결혼 (weddings), 생일 (birthdays), and 집들이 (housewarmings) 파티 (parties). I remember how shocked my Korean friend was when she saw a license plate number with 4444 in the U.S.

  • 병원  [byeong-won] – hospital
  • 결혼  [gyeol-hon]  – wedding
  • 생일  [sang-il]  – birthday
  • 집들이  [jip-deul-ee]– housewarming
  • 파티  [pa-tee] – party

The reason for Korean people’s  4자 기피 (tetraphobia) might sound irrational to your ears, however, it will be helpful for you to understand why there are no 4th floors in certain buildings in South Korea, and why people avoid giving gifts in a group of fours in many occasions. Since many Korean people consider the number 4  is associated with misfortunes or death, understanding this aspect of the Korean culture might help you to avoid possible cultural sensitivity.

감사합니다! 

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