Well now it's DEFINITELY going to rain!
August 5, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

I've realised that there is a habit in my culture (white, UK English) of not acknowledging possible good things for fear that this will 'cause' a reversal. Have you noticed this habit in your country? Is there a name and/or history attached to this superstition?

For example, if I say "Ah, no roadworks today - should be a clear drive!", my mum might say "Don't say that! Now there'll be an accident!" Popular other subjects that attract the finger of Doom are health and (unsurprisingly) the weather. Especially rain.
posted by NoiselessPenguin to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is a jinx.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:26 AM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Grew up and live in the U.S., and I've always called this "tempting fate" or "jinxing."
posted by rtha at 8:27 AM on August 5, 2013 [9 favorites]

It's common in my culture (European-ancestry Jews.) And if you do go so far as to acknowledge a good thing, you verbally ward off the evil eye at the same time.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:27 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Depending on the situation, I'll label it as hubris, and I admit-- sometimes I knock on wood.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:28 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

American here (white middle class), this is absolutely prevalent amongst the people I know. Knocking on wood can sometimes stave off the doom. I also, like jetlagaddict, connect it to the Greek gods and hubris, but for me that is an educated add-on to my superstition.
posted by sumiami at 8:30 AM on August 5, 2013

I grew up in the US but my parents are from India and we had a lot of this growing up - like "touch wood" if you mention you didn't get this year's cold, "You got great weather for your wedding!" "Oh, you just HAD to say that, now it will rain."

I have a mix of British English and Indian influence in my family that influenced this I think - definitely noticed it in American culture but have noticed it's stronger among immigrant cultures for whatever reason.
posted by sweetkid at 8:32 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a counterpoint, Kurt Vonnegut's call to call out the niceness of things when you notice them has stuck with me. I consider his writing definitively American; YMMV.
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:34 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

My Jewish family calls it a kina hora.
posted by inertia at 8:34 AM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is prevalent in religion. My Catholic mother always corrects me with "God willing..."
In Islam, it is Insha'Allah
Perhaps religion is the ultimate source of this now general feeling of not paying proper respect to the gods.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
James 4:13-15
posted by vacapinta at 8:34 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A prominent example from American culture - in baseball, if a pitcher is on track to have a perfect game, it's considered to jinx the pitcher to talk about it, even outside his hearing (although baseball announcers in recent years seem to have given up on the taboo of talking about a no-hitter or a perfect game before it's complete).
posted by muddgirl at 8:42 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think part of this is it's a common trope in fiction. If you say "Ah, no roadworks today - should be a clear drive!" that is you Tempting Fate. Also, keep in mind that people usually remember the coincidences more than the non-coincidences. If you say "no roadwords today - should be a clear drive" and the drive is clear then no one will end up remembering it later. If there is an accident then that will be remembered long after the fact because you were tempting fate, confirming their superstition.
posted by Green With You at 8:46 AM on August 5, 2013

In the states (at least in the western US), it's generally acknowledged that, as soon as you wash your car, it *will* rain!
posted by dbmcd at 8:49 AM on August 5, 2013

Central/Western New York W.A.S.P. here, and grew up calling it the same things as rtha. I personally caused the heavy rain of the summer of 2002 by exclusively using a clothesline, and my best school friend was responsible for the death of Lucille Ball.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:49 AM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

There's a folk superstition called Matiasma in Greece, which basically holds that compliments (even if well-intentioned), can bring down harm upon the praised subject (usually children). (JSTOR article about this here.) Typically people will either pretend to spit (make the sound "ptou, ptou, ptou") when they're complimented on their children or otherwise make some other comment to cancel out the effect of the praise. You can also see people wear blue eye charms to ward off Matiasma or Vaskania (which is looking/praising with evil intent).

I have no proof for this, but I think this belief is a very old folk tradition, going back perhaps even to the ancient Greeks (see the myth of Niobe and her children).
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:49 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's definitely an old, old tradition in a lot of areas-- here's a bit from Catullus (5):
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.

Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
(Also translated as "Let us shake the abacus, so that no one may know the number.") There are many symbols interpreted as warding off evils or ill wishes throughout the ancient world, though those are usually seen as for bigger issues like death.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:54 AM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Commentator's curse fits into this category - e.g. You shouldn't say things like "They'll never score in a million years", "Australia haven't got a hope of winning a match", and other variants thereof, because fairly quickly, the commentator will be proved wrong. As others have pointed out, this is a superstition with a very long history.
posted by BigCalm at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2013

Hospital nursing in the U.S. is full of this kind of superstition. We never, ever, ever say "the Q word" (quiet), and coworkers will glare you into silence if you mention, "Hey, this shift is going pretty well," or "Maybe we'll all get out of here on time today!" It's also taboo to mention a patient who hasn't been admitted in a while; "X must be doing well" is considered to be like the kiss of death. Knocking on wood is the standard response if you accidentally slip and say something along these lines. Like others, I think this general phenomenon is known as "Tempting Fate." Or "Asking For It."
posted by vytae at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

White, eastern NY, Irish ancestry and grew up among some immigrants: Not only don't you jinx the good, ("No roadworks today!") you also continue to downplay good fortune in order not to screw it up for your future self.

X: "You got the promotion! Congratulations! This means great things for you!"
Y: "Well, we will see... Let's hope they don't figure out what I am really like!"

Laughter all around

And this will continue. It is part and parcel of just not boasting about anything and always expecting the worst/being surprised by the best.
posted by oflinkey at 9:10 AM on August 5, 2013

It's related to what you are talking about.. lots of cultures have a phrase for "speak of the devil" ("Speak of the devil and he doth appear").

This is not the same as not acknowledging the sun lest it rain, but is absolutely analogous with not mentioning the lack of roadworks.. lest they appear.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:11 AM on August 5, 2013

Brene Brown calls this foreboding joy and talks specifically about enjoying the good things now, as they are happening, because we're busy imagining the roof caving in.
posted by bilabial at 9:13 AM on August 5, 2013

This is very common in sports. For instance, when a baseball pitcher has a no-hitter going, there's a strong taboo about saying so until it's completed.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:17 AM on August 5, 2013

In Germany, it's considered bad luck to congratulate someone on their birthday before the actual day, or to furnish a baby's room before it is born. The latter is usually done anyway because it's just not practical otherwise, but some older people will find it unsettling. And of course, man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben (don't praise the day before the evening)
posted by Skybly at 9:25 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

In Germany, it's considered bad luck to congratulate someone on their birthday before the actual day, or to furnish a baby's room before it is born. The latter is usually done anyway because it's just not practical otherwise, but some older people will find it unsettling.

Many people in my (American) Jewish family still doesn't set up a baby's room before they are born, or have baby showers. That superstition is still alive and kicking in some parts of the world!
posted by inertia at 10:04 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also true in the theater world where rather than wishing a fellow performer "Good Luck" before opening, the traditional greeting is Break a leg!
posted by Rash at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding vytae's comment: I work in a vet ER and it's the same story there.
posted by bebrave! at 10:18 AM on August 5, 2013

Yep, as noted by others above, here in the U.S. the common terms for this are 'jinx' and 'tempting fate'.

This sort of belief is also prevalent in the country of my birth, Turkey. If you speak directly of something good, you risk drawing the attention of others to it. And if someone looks upon another person with envy, that look is considered to be 'the evil eye' (in Turkish, nazar). It's not so much that the onlooker intends any harm (they may or may not); it's just that the act of looking on with envy can in and of itself bring on the curse, and target the cursed individual.

To ward off the evil eye, Turks often hang an eye-shaped amulet (nazar boncuğu) in their homes, offices, cars, etc. It is also customary to say 'nazardan saklasin' ('may you/he/she be hidden from the evil eye') when someone has praise heaped on them. Or, if you are expressing your admiration for something, you might say Masha'Allah, invoking God's blessings upon the object or person that is being admired. And, like everyone else, it seems, we knock on wood.

Me, I just knock on wood, like, all the damn time! (Especially when my team is at the free throw line...)
posted by fikri at 10:20 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Russian folk belief, including in my Russian Jewish family, to do this is to sglazit' ... from the word glaz, for "eye." So the word evokes something like "to involuntarily call upon the [evil] eye."

If I say something I'm about to do is likely to go well (which BTW I never do, because I've internalized this pretty hard), my grandmother might say something like "T'fu t'fu t'fu -- chtoby ne sglazit'" ("so's not to jinx it"). That's a spitting noise exactly like what longdaysjourney described about Greece, which is blowing my mind right now.
posted by geneva uswazi at 10:29 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the yiddish phrase for this is kayn ahoreh.
posted by elizardbits at 10:33 AM on August 5, 2013

In Romania, we've got something very much like geneva uswazi and longdaysjourney describe for Russia and Greece (so my mind is doubly blown, three times, if I count fikri, who also describes something quite similar - and all of these in the Balkans and surrounding areas...).

It's called "deochi" (literally "de-eye", or "un-eye", ), and is something bad which can be brought on someone if another person looks with envy or admiration upon the recipient (and in this respect it differs from the "evil eye", which relies on bad intention - you can "deochiat" someone even if you love + admire them, just by being over-expansive in verbally expressing your admiration).

In Romania, particularly babies and nursing mothers are vulnerable to the deochi, which can make them colicky (the babies), or overly yawny, can bring on migraines or a generalised malaise (I think its also a bit of a folk-explanation for post-partum depression). You prevent it by putting a piece of red thread around the babies/ mother's wrist or ankle, or around the crib, or by doing the "Ptiu, ptiu, ptiu, let me not deochi you" routine described by others above. So, if you coo over a baby, you have to go "Ptiu, ptiu, ptiu etc", and actually mimic the spitting, either turning your head away from the baby, or else by spitting into your own bossom. (Parenthesis: I once got into trouble as a fairly young kid when I encountered this for the first time in a baby's room: since I was gushing over the baby, one of the matron's/ busybodies there demanded I spit lest I deochi the baby, so I full-on spat on the floor. That's when I learned that even superstition has to be done in a ladylike manner, which, I learned hence, mostly involves faux-spitting into your decolletage).

So, anyway, people in general (but also objects, animals, plants - you got a tree or flower which is wasting for no reason - it's deochi, same with animals) can be de-eyed, and mostly when they are experiencing a high - so, if for instance you stumble in your high heels, someone has de-eyed you (out of envy or admiration) because you look extra pretty, if you crash your car because of post-celebration drunk-driving, you've been de-eyed for whatever you have been celebrating etc. One way to prevent this beside the "Ptiu, ptiu" is to cross yourself, since this chases away the mean and petty spirits whose attention was drawn to you by the person who put the deochi on you. If the thing is persistent (streak of bad luck), tougher measures are required, such as a "descîntec", which is a ritual with set spells/ prayers, and which involves you chucking half-burned matches into a glass of water during which you say an incantation, then you take a metal knife to the glass and "cut" the water three times crosswise, and then the deochiat drinks the water, all of which is intended to rid you of the deochi. Big guns: an actual service by a priest, monk, or a famously devout person, or, alternatively, a session with a witch, who can cast or lift deochi spells, be they involuntary or intentional, from admiration or from envy.

Other useful facts: don't let a toddler see himself in the mirror, he might deochiat him/herself, having no barriers against evil forces as yet. Gold deflects the spell/deochi, and garlic and the colour red neutralize it.

According to this site (in Romanian), southern Italy has something similar. Business meets superstition in an anti-spell tie, onto which some relevant symbol has been embroidered. The symbol can be made of semi-precious stones (extra-potent), and prices can go up to several hundred Euro. You can not buy them for your own use, though, they have to be gifted. Apparently, an admirer sent one to Berlusconi before some football game which Berlusconi's team lost, and Michael Schumacher got one from the boss of Ferrari (it doesn't say if Schumacher lost or won anything post-gifting).


After going on above about the deochi (and sorry about the whole de-eyeing, un-eyeing and deochi thing, didn't quite know what to call it, since it is quite different from the evil eye by an important nuance), I suddenly realise that it is related, but not identical to the phenomenon you were asking about - with the jinxing and tempting fate, it is you who is the source of the worsening in circumstances, whilst with the evil eye, the deochi, and their Russian, Turkish and Greek equivalents (and Jewish?) it is someone else. So tempting fate goes agent of temptation x - temptation/jinx - object/sufferer of temptation x, whilst deochi goes agent of spell x - sell - object of spell y.

So, we also have the more regular knocking on wood against tempting fate, or, even more wide-spread, crossing yourself for the same purposes (this happens a lot).
posted by miorita at 11:32 AM on August 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

Ancient and medieval Judeo-Christian theologians sometimes call it "tempting God." The idea is that you're usurping God's power to determine events by claiming this knowledge that "things are going so well!" God's all like, "BAM now they suck because humans do not have perfect foreknowledge like Me." (Or you're like, I'm going to perform a miracle! And god's like, haha no.)

Here's Aquinas on tempting God. See also Deut 6:16 and Matt 4:7.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:50 AM on August 5, 2013

I was just talking to an Irish lady yesterday, she said when she was young you would never praise a baby or say how adorable etc. because that would bring bad luck (or the fairies might come and take it away.) Someone else mentioned that in India you sometimes see very pretty babies with black marks drawn on their cheek - again to deflect jealous fate.
posted by glasseyes at 12:12 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mom grew up in Russia/Ukraine and says "let me take my umbrella so it won't rain" when the weather looks questionable. Meaning that if you decide to leave your umbrella at home, it will rain because you jinxed it thinking that the weather will be nice.

And this is how the spitting sound is used in my Russian/Jewish family:
Person 1: "How is your grandma doing?"
Person 2: "She's doing really well, she's been feeling healthy, tfu-tfu-tfu" (sometimes accompanied by a triple knock on wood as you are saying tfu-tfu-tfu, which is then sometimes accompanied by a comment about how furniture is no longer made of quality hard wood, and then person 2 jokingly knocks on their own head, as if their head is made of wood.)
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 12:30 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

So many fascinating replies. This is exactly the kind of detail I was looking for. (I don't know why the word 'jinx' escaped me.) The idea that predicting a positive event is hubristic is something I'd not considered. The complications of praise, modesty, luck, fate are thoroughly absorbing. Lots of these traditions seem to attach to babies, which makes sense - they are the most vulnerable and prone to inexplicable illnesses and danger. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading about these traditions.

never.was.and.never.will.be., your umbrella dilemma is almost precisely what we say when the weather is changeable in the UK. We joke that if we take our umbrellas with us it will keep the rain away, and vice-versa. And again, my father will always pretend to knock on his head. I'm surprised how similar some of these ideas are.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 12:44 PM on August 5, 2013

+1 for kine hora, but also, we'll say "tu tu tu" which is the Jewish equivalent of the Itallians warding off malocchio (evil eye), either when you've noted something good, or referenced something bad. (In the latter case, in a heavy Yiddish accent, we'll also add, "We shouldn't know from such things." And not entirely ironically.)
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 1:12 PM on August 5, 2013

Australia, same sort of beliefs are fairly prevalent. Sometimes referred to as putting or calling the mockers on a thing or event.
posted by arha at 2:19 PM on August 5, 2013

Ah, to be free of superstition.
posted by Cranberry at 11:46 PM on August 5, 2013

The Yiddish phrase is actually kein ayin hora - "with no evil eye". The phrase "ayin hara" originally meant something like jealousy, but it was anthropomorphised into a malignant influence a long time ago.

There's another Jewish expression (Hebrew, this time) "al tiftach peh l'satan" which carries the opposite meaning: don't speculate about bad things in case that makes them happen. E.g., don't say "the event will be a success as long as it doesn't rain"; if someone says that you'd better bring an umbrella.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:21 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

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