A knife and a penny - origin of?
January 23, 2005 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I gave my girlfriend's grandmother a set of kitchen knives as a gift. She told my girlfriend I needed to give her a penny as well, for good luck. I remember when I was a kid, my dad would give me pocket knives, but ask that I give him a penny in return (he used to say something like, "You can't give or trade someone for a knife. You have to sell it to them." I can understand the selling part, except why would I have to give my girlfriend's grandmother a penny as well? Anyone know the origin of this tradition? Or is it a superstition?
posted by robbie01 to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can explain why it seems backwards, at least: The idea is that since the person you're giving the knives to has to "buy them from you" to avoid the bad omen, you include a penny with the gift which they can then turn around and give back to you.

I agree that that seems to be skirting a technicality but it doesn't make any less sense than the idea that a gift of a knife is some sort of bad omen.
posted by mendel at 8:50 PM on January 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

The superstition is that if you give someone a knife, pair of scissors, sword, etc you will sever the relationship.
posted by stavrogin at 8:54 PM on January 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

tangentially. my mother always tapes a penny to any knife she gives as a gift but says withy a laugh that it is to prevent the knife's becoming "useless or dull."

Her heritage is working-class English and French American.
posted by mwhybark at 9:38 PM on January 23, 2005

This was many bits of trivia mentioned in the film, The Edge.
posted by SPrintF at 9:40 PM on January 23, 2005

It's a bit of a stretch, but this could be an origin:

To start a judicial duel it was the responsibility of the injured party to call out the opponent. In the early part of the 1600's the call or challenge was made by throwing a glove, dagger or favor at the feet of the opponent as was done in Medieval times. By the end of the 1600's this practice was abandoned in favor of an oral challenge (in front of witnesses) or by a cartel (a written challenge). After the challenge was given, the Crown would be petitioned for a field. Basically requesting that the dispute be settled by force of arms.
posted by stavrogin at 9:54 PM on January 23, 2005 [2 favorites]

I remember reading somewhere to never give a knife as a gift as it would "cut" the friendship. More knife superstitions here; scroll down to "Knife."
posted by Lynsey at 10:38 PM on January 23, 2005

On a tangent, I've also heard (much to the delight of women everywhere) that giving just a pair of shoes as a gift would symbolize the receiver "walking away" from you.
posted by hobbes at 12:22 AM on January 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you give someone a wallet or purse, you're supposed to put a bit of money in it or you're cursing them to poverty.
posted by headspace at 5:46 AM on January 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

It doesn't work, FYI. I had never heard of this superstition until I bought a fancy ceramic knife for a good friend's wedding. She insisted on giving me a penny, saying it was a bad omen for her marriage. (I got the impression it was a wedding-based superstition.) She has since gotten divorced and we are no longer speaking, so a fat lot of good that penny did.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:22 AM on January 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

As it is now, your gift to your girlfriend's grandmother is "a knife". There may have been other things along with that knife (such as wrapping paper and a card) but the knife was the gift. This is considered a bad thing for the severing-the-friendship reason explained above.

However... If you give her a penny... then you can pretend that your gift to her was "a penny," and the knife was just something (like wrapping paper or a card) that got handed over along with the gift.

Or that's how I've always understood it. I can't find a citation, so I could be wrong.
posted by yankeefog at 6:40 AM on January 24, 2005

However... If you give her a penny... then you can pretend that your gift to her was "a penny," and the knife was just something (like wrapping paper or a card) that got handed over along with the gift.

No, no -- the folklore works like this: The giftee pays the gifter-er a penny. That way the knife is officially a purchase, not a gift. So when you give a knife, the person you gave it to needs to pay up, or see the relationship severed.

These money superstitions are great, and both mentioned here are observed in my family (the knife, and the wallet or purse one above). A 3rd: my Irish grandmother used to drop change into the nooks and crannies of the house -- behind bureaus, between floorboars, inside wallboard -- because it would mean there was always money in the house, and presumably it would draw more. To this day my parents, who live in the house now, still regularly fund dimes and pennies, though my grandmother died in 1986.
posted by Miko at 7:01 AM on January 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Addendum for clarification: Sometimes people give the knife and include a penny with the gift; this is supposed to make it easier for the recipient to pay you by giving you back this penny.
posted by Miko at 7:04 AM on January 24, 2005

Barely related: can anyone explain why my dad always tosses some change on the floor of a new car?
posted by schustafa at 7:15 AM on January 24, 2005

the knife/ coin supersition is pervalent in Thailand, too; I had no idea it was also Western.
posted by Pericles at 8:17 AM on January 24, 2005

The new car is the same thing as the house -- kind of blessing it with money in hopes that that you'll always have some. I have a friend who learned this from his Sicilian family.
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on January 24, 2005

Or is it a superstition?< ?i>

What else would it be?

posted by rushmc at 9:33 AM on January 24, 2005

What else would it be?

To some, it's a superstition; to me, it's just a tradition. I observe a number of these customs, not out of superstitious belief that they will affect my luck, but because they are behaviors I associate with my familyand cultural traditions, and I take pleasure in keeping these quirky memes from times past alive.
posted by Miko at 10:20 AM on January 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

That's interesting. While I have never heard the penny tradition, I have been admonished strongly for trying to hand a pocketknife that was handed to me open back to the lender closed. It was supposed to "cut" the friendship.
posted by tcskeptic at 6:24 PM on January 24, 2005

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