Black Friday, paraskevidekatriaphobia, and the origin of OMG

I have never quite understood why Friday 13th is viewed with such foreboding.

HMS Invincible - invented by Jack Fisher and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.
HMS Invincible –  the first battlecruiser, invented by Jack Fisher (along with ‘OMG’) and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

From the science perspective it’s no different from any other day. The Earth revolves on its axis, creating the illusion of the sun rising and falling – but one revolution, surely, isn’t any different from another. Arbitrary dates and divisions we make up in western society, surely, are just that? (OMG, I sound like Spock.)

Lots of people beg to differ, though. We are, it seems, often paraskevidekatriaphobics – including, it seems, the man who invented OMG. I’ll explain. On 1 November 1914, a German cruiser squadron under Vice-Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee shattered a British force under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, off Coronel.

The British Admiralty – under their volcanic First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – responded decisively.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher's 'Memories' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).
First ever use of OMG, in a letter from Sir John Fisher to Winston Churchill, 1917, published two years later; from my copy of Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919). Click to enlarge.

Fisher was an incredible character – deeply devout, creative, brilliant, egotistical, paranoid and prone to pursuing feuds, the man who invented not only the battlecruiser but also the term OMG that we know and love today. Seriously! I have the original publication. “O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)” And as First Sea Lord, he wasn’t going to stand for any rubbish from the Germans.

On the back of von Spee’s Coronel victory, a massive force, including two battlecruisers, was ordered to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s cruiser squadron. But then it turned out that Invincible needed dockyard work at Devonport and would not be ready to sail before Friday 13 November. Fisher discovered the point and declared to Winston Churchill, then his political counterpart in the Admiralty, ‘Friday 13th! What a day to choose!”

Churchill thought so too, though for other reasons than those of a superstitious sailor. Britain was at war, and as far as he was concerned there was no excuse for dockyard slackness.  The ships, he insisted, would leave on Wednesday 11th – even if it meant sending dock workers with the Invincible.

They did. And it turned out to be very bad luck for von Spee, who was caught and annihilated off the Falkland Islands on 8 December.

Do you believe in Friday 13th – or other omens?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


12 thoughts on “Black Friday, paraskevidekatriaphobia, and the origin of OMG

  1. The bad press for Friday the 13th is related to the Night’s Templar, as it’s the day most of the order was killed for being blasphemers. At least that’s what I’ve read in several accounts. You probably know better. 😉

      1. I learned about the Friday the 13th / Templar connection from a History Channel documentary. Of course, it didn’t provide in-depth insights, but I trust the general accuracy. For some reason the Knights Templar fell out of favor with the Christian church of the time, and so were killed en mass for heresy. As were many during that age.

  2. I did not think of the date until my car got hit–forms, you know?– but mostly, I do not think of Friday the 13th as anything other than just another day. Interesting comment about the Knights Templar.
    Again, enjoyable post.

  3. I suppose one would have to believe in superstition to think that any number or day was better than another. Each day is how you make it. If you truly believe Friday the 13th is bad luck, then you should not be surprised when bad things happen. If you believe it is a good day, then mostly things will run along smoothly.

    1. I sometimes wonder whether the stuff we associate with Friday 13 happens most days. But when it happens on the ‘bad luck’ day we tend to notice and attribute that reason to it.

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