The 411 on the 413

I've been noticing how numbers are becoming stand-ins for words. And I don't mean just using an ordinary number (411) as slang for an ordinary noun (information). I'm talking here about numbers that become, in effect, proper names.

This realization crystallized for me on a recent visit to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in the town of North Adams a few hours west of Boston. In the cafe, as I glanced at the headlines on the newspaper abandoned at the next table – a well-read copy of that day's Berkshire Eagle – I couldn't help noticing that it calls its feature section "The 413."

Well, sure. Why not? That's the telephone area code for western Massachusetts – one of the original area codes, going back to 1947, with no "overlay" with another code: 413 reigns supreme and unique within its region. "The 413" certainly takes less space on a page than "Things That Are Happening in Western Massachusetts."

Still, one has to ask: How strongly do people identify with their area codes?

In the case of 313, just one digit over on the keypad, the answer, apparently, is "quite strongly." Time was when 313 was the area code for all of metropolitan Detroit. But as its suburbs have been hived off into their own new area codes, "the 313" has become shorthand for one of the largest African-American communities in the United States.

That, in turn, has made it very fashionable for those in the hip-hop community, Wikipedia reports: Residents of "the 3-1-3" may pride themselves on being "real" Detroiters.

Perhaps the most recognized area code is 212. It once covered New York City but now concentrates its energies on Manhattan. New York was designated "212" when area codes were introduced because that was the fastest three-digit number that could be dialed on a rotary phone under the technical restrictions of the day.

The other kind of number that defines Americans is the ZIP Code. (Those capital letters are an acronym for Zoning Improvement Plan, by the way.) The most famous example has got to be "Beverly Hills, 90210," the TV show that helped turn "Dylan" and "Brandon" into hot-ticket names for baby boys in Sweden.

ZIP Codes, covering a smaller territory, tend to be more homogeneous, more "characterizable," if that's a word, than area codes. But most ZIP snippiness and snobbery is pretty local. The Washington area has competition between Georgetown (20007) and Old Town Alexandria (22314), for instance. (Wouldn't it be cool to be able to give your ZIP as "two-triple-oh-seven"?) And on the Maryland side, what about Great Falls (22066) vs. Potomac (20854)? The latter, by the way, was the tentative title for the show that became "Beverly Hills, 90210."

There may be something odd but very human about becoming attached to a number developed for a strictly technical purpose. This becomes especially apparent in a foreign country, where one knows enough of what's going on to appreciate it intellectually but remains detached emotionally.

When I was in Ireland a number of years ago, I interviewed a demographer who spoke of "Dublin 2" in a tone of voice that signaled prestige. Come to find out, there's a rivalry between the Northside and the Southside in Dublin, with generally odd (that is, uneven) postal codes north of the River Liffey, and even codes to the south.

The whole system is to be changed in 2008, though, organized along administrative rather than geographical lines. What will the market analysts make of the new system? It may take awhile, but I won't be surprised if they figure out a way to slice and dice the neighborhoods by the new numbers.

Then, perhaps, tony boutiques can sell "Dublin 726" tank tops.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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