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This weekend I played a detective mystery party game in German called "Im Irrenhaus".

The action of the game takes place in a mental health hospital. Every patient has a number and a name, both are known to everybody, but the rest — their personal story, their task and, as in every detective game, the actual murderer — is not known and has to be found out.

According to the explanation of the game master after the gaming session, the number of one patient — namely, 4711 — is indicative that he is not an actual patient, because this is "just the number one would use as an example number, as a number that first comes to one's mind etc.".

As an example of a similar number with some "special meaning" he also mentioned the number 08/15 that could mean "just an average number, somebody who is just an average, nothing special, a humble citizen".

I have never heard or read about such meanings and failed to find any support for what I was told. 4711 is known as a toilet water series of Kölnisch Wasser, 08/15 doesn't have any special meaning in Wikipedia.

So, do these numbers really have such implied or hidden meanings or it is just a sort of "game rules" in that particular game? Do other numbers with some determined connotation exist?

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for "0815" see: german.stackexchange.com/q/1981/23 –  Takkat Dec 19 '11 at 11:17
as for 4711: I'm surprised to find this rarely on the WEB. It's definitely a common usage of that number, not restricted to that game. Maybe it's, in fact, used mainly by software engineers in this manner, as claimed in this wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4711_%28brand%29 –  Thomas Dec 19 '11 at 12:45
+1 for 4711 beeing the "foobar" of numbers in germany. –  0x6d64 Dec 19 '11 at 17:27
@Thomas, why do you write WEB in all capitals? It's an ordinary word, not an acronym. –  fzwo Dec 20 '11 at 16:19
@fzwo WEB (written in all capitals) is not an ordinary word but the first literate programming system by Donald Knuth. It's totally misplaced here, though. –  Toscho Sep 6 '13 at 20:58
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5 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

4711 (pronounced "siebenundvierzig elf") is indeed a number that people of my age and older know very well because it's a well-known brand of Eau de Cologne ("Kölnisch Wasser").

4711 Kölnisch Wasser

815 is actually 08/15 (pronounced "null-acht fünfzehn") and an expression for something that is standard, "plain vanilla."

The saying has its origin in the name of a WW I machine gun.

MG 08/15

You can read more about 08/15 here on Stack Exchange.

There is an article in German Wikipedia that is a lists "particular numbers" (but more from a numeric point of view): Liste besonderer Zahlen

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Isn't it pronounced siebenundvierzig elf? –  René Nyffenegger Dec 28 '11 at 8:39
Another interesting point might be, that 08-15 (I usually hear it as null-acht-fuffzehn) can actually be used as an adjective. "Ach, wir haben gestern so einen 08-15 Film gesehen." or "Der Film war nichts besonderes, so eine 08-15 Romanze." –  fifaltra Dec 28 '13 at 19:31
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Wir haben einen Kollegen in unserer (kleinen) Firma, den wir den "4711" nennen, weil er sich überall einmischt. Der Grund dafür, ihn so zu nennen, ist ein alter Werbeslogan: "4711 - immer dabei".

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4711 and 08/15 are probably the best examples, but there are some other numbers with slight undertones.

  • 123: A climax of some sort or a generic "random number".
  • 7, 17,27: Special in some way, e.g. Trick 17, Trick 27(b).
  • 13, 42, 666, …: the same as international.

Interestingly, there are some more numbers with associated meanings. There is a small puzzle, which you can find here. (It's only in German.)

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There's a list of numbers you may want to be careful with, especially in Germany, since they're used as symbols by Neo-Nazis (German Wikipedia). Openly Nazi symbols are illegal in Germany, so the Neo-Nazis use numbers as a way to circumvent the laws.

Usually, these numbers refer to letters in the alphabet, for example 88=HH="Heil Hitler". Walking around with a T-shirt with the number 88 in Germany is not recommended.

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Well, and 18 as AH and so on - far too many small numbers to be carefull about. –  user unknown Dec 21 '11 at 17:13
@userunknown: 88, 18, 28, 19/8, and 19/19 are the most important ones, IMO, and that's not that hard to remember. –  Jonas Dec 21 '11 at 17:21
I'm not talking about hard to remember numbers, but I would never avoid a number, because some morons use them. Don't let Nazis occupy numbers! They aren't that important - not in the way they use numbers. –  user unknown Dec 21 '11 at 19:55
Man kann und sollte diese Zahlenkombinationen durchaus kritisch beurteilen: verfassungsschutz.brandenburg.de/cms/detail.php/bb1.c.136903.de –  Takkat Jan 1 '12 at 13:56
@userunknown: Unless you manage to get a massive campaign going for reappropriation of these numbers, you'll look like a Nazi to everybody else when you proudly wear them on your shirt. –  Jonas Jan 1 '12 at 15:32
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4711 definitely has a “greater place” in the german consciousness.

I am a Brit who's been living in Germany for 12 years now, and I can say that it is my ever increasing experience that Germans use the number 4711 extremely often as the number of choice when needing to pluck some example number out of thin air. (I work in the IT-branch and so I hear it quite a lot in presentations, where example numbers are frequently needed).

I'm also interested in the origins of this phenomenon, so I went looking - particularly for the use of 4711 as an example number:

A google search for “Beispiel 4711” (EN: “Example 4711”) finds 144,000 results, the first 5 of use the number as example numbers in various IT branches (SAP, Java, networked systems, Oracle and Webservices) in the next 2 as example telephone numbers, and the 7th entry is the first reference to N°4711 Eau de Cologne…

Here are some interesting references und comments on the topic:

http:// www.cosmiq.de/qa/show/713529/Was-hat-SAP-mit-4711-zu-tun/

In Germany SAP is a leading computer software manufacturer - and the above forum discussion explains that the numbers 4711 and 0815 are used as example numbers throughout the complete documentation wherever a 4-digit number is required.

4711 is described there by one of the forum contributers as one of the best known numbers in german-speaking countries.

On page

http:// www.lernsklave.de/index.php?s=katalle&kat=8

4711 is promoted as an 'aide-memoire' for the size of the spleen, i.e. 4cm * 7cm * 11cm. This may (or may not) correctly reflect the size of a typical spleen, however, I do not think that this is one of the major reasons 4711 has such fame in Germany - at least, I have observed no heightened interest in spleens in Germany.

http:// www.4711.com/

The Eau de Cologne perfume brand mark “N°4711”


The brand mark “N°4711” originates from the number of the house in Cologne, where the product was invented. It's the number of the house in the town, being before the time that houses got a street number. And the street was called Glockengasse ('bells alley').

The google search “Haus 4711” thus finds 436,000 results, reflecting perhaps the importance of this reference?

IF Eau de Cologne 4711 IS one of the major stimulants behind the public consciousness of the number 4711, (and looking at the above Eau de Cologne web pages, I believe it does play a factor) it is certainly keeping its brand number actively fresh with the recent release of a new product 'NOUVEAU COLOGNE' on the - you guessed it - 4th July 2011 (4.7.11!):

http:// www.nouveau-cologne.com/news/language/de.html?file=tl_files/4711_NouveauCologne/Downloads/110701_Pressemitteilung_4711%20NOUVEAU%20COLOGNE.pdf

Further info & links to be found on the Wikipedia page on 4711 (the brand mark):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4711 or http:// de.wikipedia.org/wiki/4711

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