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Let's Look At The Language

March 26, 2011

The language of superstition injects some fun in language

I hope as you read this, on March 26, that spring is at least somewhat apparent. 

As I write this in mid-March, it is not. I have always enjoyed winter, but this winter has been a bit too — what’s the word? — relentless. Which brings me to a bone I’d like to pick with a certain Pennsylvania woodchuck. Hey, Punxsutawney Phil, what gives? On Feb. 2, you did not equivocate. The verdict was clear: no shadow, early spring. You lying little rodent.

OK, as rodents go, Phil’s not all that little, and he wasn’t lying so much as he was performing his duties as an instrument of a beloved superstition.

And what’s not to love about superstitions?

For the most part, they’re so ludicrous as to serve no real purpose but to amuse us (except for those foolish enough to actually believe in them, I suppose).

As a part of our language, superstitions are marvelous snippets of cultural lore, and even the most briefly worded superstition suggests a greater tale — certainly there must be a story behind every superstition. Granted, we cannot pinpoint the precise origins of most superstitions, but we can imagine that something worth noting did occur to someone at some time in some place that gave rise to the superstition that “explains” it. (The word “superstition” can be traced to the Latin “superstitio,” which perhaps meant “standing over a thing in amazement or awe.”)

Real evidence that “if you catch a falling leaf on the first day of autumn, you will not catch a cold all winter” could reasonably have happened to someone, who then turned these unrelated events into a “proven” formula for health. The prevention and treatment of sickness have always been a popular breeding ground for superstition. Try imagining what the original stories behind these gems of health advice might have been: “The dried body of a frog worn in a silk bag around the neck averts epilepsy and other fits.” / “To cure a cough, take a hair from your head, put it between two slices of buttered bread, feed it to a dog, and say, ‘Eat well you hound, may you be sick and I be sound.’” / “To avoid dying prematurely, never let more than one person comb your hair at the same time.”

Of course, not all superstitions are about health. Some just give me pause for thought. If the warning “don’t knit a pair of socks for your boyfriend or he’ll walk away from you” is true, shouldn’t the boy be worried about his girlfriend’s intentions if she knits him a pair of socks? I’ve heard that “seeing an ambulance is very unlucky unless you pinch your nose or hold your breath until you see a black or brown dog.”

Wouldn’t you end up needing an ambulance if a black or brown dog never showed up?

“Cows lifting their tails is a sure sign that rain is coming.”

Hmm. I’m no farmer, but I’ve been to enough county fairs to know that cows lifting their tails can be a sure sign of something else coming. “You sleep best with your head to the north and your feet to the south.” In bedrooms where the headboard must face either east or west, I’m thinking this is not such practical advice (unless the person is extemely short).

So it would seem that superstitions are largely laughable, and yet the most familiar ones are rarely laughed at — for instance, many tall buildings skip the numeration of a 13th floor, most people make a conscious effort not to walk under a ladder, and who bats an eye at a baseball player who spits on a new bat for luck?

Most of us, however, do not wear a blue bead for protection from witches, cut our hair on Good Friday to prevent headaches for the rest of the year, or avoid bad luck by not saying “pig” while fishing at sea, but we should still appreciate the wealth of cultural history

wrapped up in the lore of superstition. It’s not always apparent what that history actually is, but it’s nonetheless a fun and fascinating thread in our language.

EDMESTON RESIDENT CHRISTINE A. LINDBERG, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford’s American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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