“Sex is one of the nine reasons for reincarnation. The other eight are unimportant.” – Henry Miller
The modern number 8, like the rest of the nine Roman numerals, started life in first-century India, where it looked rather similar to our modern 5.
The double-loop style was first used by the Arab scholars of al-Andalus in 10th-century Spain. Their numbers were called “dust numerals” because they were drawn on a board covered in sand. This was the original abacus (a Latin word which came from the Hebrew abaq for “dust”).
No one is quite sure of the origin of the infinity sign, or lemniscate (from the Latin for ribbon), but it was first used in print by the English mathematician John Wallis in 1655. One theory is that it was a “lazy eight”: an 8 on its side, which made it easy for typesetters to reproduce.
In China, the number eight determines the life of a man: a boy gets his milk teeth at eight months, loses them at eight years, reaches puberty at 2×8 = 16 years of age, and is supposed to lose his sexual virility at 8×8 = 64. In Japan, eight is a lucky number because its character resembles the sacred Mount Fuji.
In the old Japanese number system, eight (ya or yattsu) was used to indicate any big number, so “to break into a thousand pieces” would be yatsuzaki (“break into eight pieces”) and the old name of Tokyo was happyakuhakku (“city with 808 districts”).
Pieces of eight
The piece of eight, a Spanish silver coin, worth eight reales and also known as the Spanish dollar, was legal tender in the US until 1857. Produced by the Spanish empire and traded everywhere, it was the first world currency and the basis of many modern currencies, including the US dollar and the Chinese yuan.
The pieces were often broken into eight bits or four quarters to make smaller change: the origin of “two bits” or a “quarter” for 25 cents. The piece of eight was the basis for the 1 dollar denominations used by the US Stock Exchange to price equities until 1997.
In computer science information is stored in bytes, most of which are composed of eight bits. A bit is a contracted form of “binary digit”.
During the Second World War, code-breakers were recruited using the Daily Telegraph crossword. Those who could complete the crossword in under 12 minutes were invited to sign up. The fastest recorded time was by FHW Hawes of Dagenham, who finished it in under eight minutes.
The world’s first photograph, called View from the Window at le Gras, by Joseph Niépce (c.1826) had an exposure time of eight hours. This was the time it took for the sun to move from east to west across the building standing opposite the camera.
The term octave originally related to the eight days following a religious festival (from the Latin octava dies, “eighth day”). Just like its current musical meaning, the counting began with the day itself, so an octave would be seven days later.
Sung as “Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do”, the eight notes of an octave are known as the solfège (from sol and fa). This was an invention not of Rodgers and Hammerstein but Guido of Arezzo, who developed it in the 11th century to teach monks new Gregorian chants. It uses the first syllables of phrases in a Latin hymn to John the Baptist (which refers to cleaning our dirty lips through singing his praises): Ut queant laxis resonare fibris/Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,/Solve polluti labii reatum,/Sancte Iohannes. The last “si” was changed to “ti” in English-speaking countries to avoid repetition and the initial “ut” lost its place to “do”, short for Dominus, meaning Lord.