Saturday, 5 March 2011

007 is the magic number

James Bond goes by two names. There’s James Bond, of course, but we also know him by his code number, 007. The two are interchangeable. It would be difficult to find anyone who does not recognise that 007 refers to James Bond. In fact, it seems that 007 is better known than James Bond. A Google search for James Bond brings up 36 million results. A search for 007 has 234 million results. How has Bond’s number become so successful that it has eclipsed the name James Bond as the identifier of Ian Fleming’s spy?

If we trawled through the vast amount of literature available on Bond lore, we’d find some competing theories on how Fleming came by the number 007. Fleming was well-read, so he was no doubt aware that Elizabeth I’s favourite secret agent and astrologer, ‘Dr’ John Dee, signed his communications ‘007’, the double zeros representing eyes. Then there’s the view that Fleming took the number from a short story by Rudyard Kipling, ‘.007’, about an American locomotive. According to Philip Gardiner, author of The Bond Code, Fleming was making an astrophysicist’s joke – 0.007 apparently relates to the mass of hydrogen required to bind the particles that form an atomic nucleus.

The truth is likely to be much simpler. Following the successful interception during the first world war of a top-secret German document identified in German diplomatic code as 0075, all classified documents in British military intelligence were given a double-0 code. This continued into the second world war. Fleming himself mentioned in an interview that top-secret signals were prefixed with the code. There is no doubt that he saw the code ‘00’, followed by a number, very frequently, and it stuck with him.

Quite why double-0, and 007 in particular, appealed to Fleming so much is uncertain, but some of the reasons could be the same as those that ensure that 007 remains well known today. The number has an aesthetic quality – it looks good, probably due to the juxtaposition of the round with the angular. Then there’s the manner it’s said, which gives the code name a rhythm, moving the mouth and tongue in a mildly pleasing way. The code is not ‘zero-zero-seven’, or ‘oh-oh-seven’, but ‘double-oh-seven’. Even Fleming pronounced it this way. It is also worth considering the size of the number. A three-digit number is easier to remember than a number with more digits, but it is long enough to give it an distinct identity. A one or two digit code is more likely to be confused with other, non-Bond-related, numbers.

There are other advantages that 007 has over the name James Bond. ‘007’ is effectively a logogram, like Japanese kanji, that stands for a word (in this case James Bond). This is very useful. For instance, the use of 007, rather than James Bond, is better in non-English speaking countries. This is evident by the non-English titles of Bond films, among them ‘Agent 007 Versus the Satanic Dr No’ (Spain), ‘To 007, From Russia With Love’ (Italy), ‘The Queen’s 007’ (Japan, OHMSS). The number uses fewer characters than James Bond and is therefore good for newspaper headlines. The film producers made the number more memorable by turning the seven into the butt of a gun. Effectively the code became a symbol and trade-mark.

The code number 007 is a highly successful meme. It has fecundity, being replicated often, it is replicated accurately, and it has longevity, surviving so far for almost 60 years. Why Ian Fleming chose 007 may be a matter of debate, but one thing is certain: to paraphrase the grail knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he chose wisely.


Gardiner, P, 2008 The Bond code: the dark world of Ian Fleming and James Bond, New Page Books, Franklin Lakes
Macintyre, B, 2008 For your eyes only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Bloomsbury, London
Nourmand, T, 2003 James Bond movie posters: the official 007 collection, Boxtree, London

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