Superstitions around the world are numbered and varied, and many of them have given rise to strange idiomatic expressions.
If you wanted to tell someone off in Germany, for example, you could say “Scher dich zum Kuckuck!” which means “go (quickly) to the cuckoo!” This makes no sense at all unless you’re aware of the fact that it’s bad luck to say the devil’s name out loud in Germany, but “cuckoo” is fair game as a substitute. The cuckoo has a habit of putting its eggs in other birds’ nests, which has given it an association with the devil.
Here are 13 other foreign phrases that originated from superstitions around the world.
1. Turkish: Ocağıma incir ağacı diktin.
“You planted a fig tree in my home.”
In Turkey, it’s considered bad luck to hand someone a knife or pair of scissors directly (you’re supposed to put it on a table or floor first). If someone violates this rule — which can be taken as a sign of aggression — you can get back at them by planting a fig tree in front of their house, which is considered bad luck. Hence the expression.
2. German: Scherben bringen Glück.
“Shards of glass bring luck.”
Loud clanging and shattering noises are thought to drive off evil spirits and bring good luck. This belief is manifested in many rituals in Germany. For example, on the evening before a wedding, many ceremonies will include a Polterabend, which involves porcelain and ceramics being shattered in front of the couple in order to secure a happy future for them. Not everything that breaks brings good luck, however. Breaking a mirror can get you seven years of bad luck, because your reflection is thought to represent your soul. When the mirror breaks, so does the soul of the person who’s reflected. The soul takes seven years to heal, according to this German superstition.
3. French: Un malheur ne vient jamais seul.
“One misfortune never comes alone.”
This saying is pretty self-explanatory. It means that when you have a problem, you should expect more troubles to come. This is not unlike the English expression of “when it rains, it pours.” This idea may have originated in Latin poetry, wherein a common theme was this notion that misfortunes are linked to each other and are often brought about by the same root cause.
4. Spanish: En martes ni te cases ni te embarques.
“Don’t get married or board a ship on a Tuesday.”
Tuesday the 13th is the Spanish equivalent of our Friday the 13th. This expression is basically suggesting you avoid doing anything risky or important (like get married or travel) on a Tuesday. In Spanish-speaking countries, Tuesday is considered a day of bad luck, especially if it fell on the 13th day of the month.
5. Italian: A versare l’olio e il sale, porta male.
“Spilling oil and salt brings bad luck.”
Since ancient Roman times, salt and oil have been considered resources of great importance and value, luxury items or even rare commodities. Soldiers, for example, were paid with salt (hence the word salario, or salary), and many foods were, and still are, preserved with oil and salt. Even in more “esoteric” terms, salt is of considerable importance. In certain magical practices (like alchemy), salt symbolizes the Earth. It’s also thought to be effective in keeping evil or disruptive entities at bay (according to a proverb, moreover, it is said that the Devil would always offer dishes without salt). Wasting oil or salt is therefore supposed to bring back luck. But in the case of salt, you can always protect yourself by immediately throwing three pinches of salt behind your left shoulder.
6. Swedish: Peppar, peppar, ta i trä!
“Pepper, pepper, touch wood!”
Similar to how we say “knock on wood” in English, Swedish people say this to avoid jinxing themselves. The idea is that you sprinkle pepper on your metaphorical luck to protect it from evil forces. Often, only the first part of the expression is said: “peppar, peppar.”
7. Portuguese: Começar com o pé direito/esquerdo
“To start with the right/left foot”
In Portuguese, “to start something with the right foot” brings good luck, while “to start something with the left foot” suggests bad luck. In other words, if you have a bad day, you could say “I woke up on the left foot.” If you have a job interview, your friend might tell you to “entre com o pé direito” (enter with the right foot).
8. Indonesian: Amit amit!
This is used almost exactly like its English equivalent, especially in situations where you might feel compelled to cancel out any bad omens.
9. Russian: Не показывай на себе! (Ne pokazyvai na sebe!)
“Don’t show on yourself!”
This phrase is generally used in the very specific context of discussing another person’s illnesses or wounds. When speaking of another person’s health issues, you should never indicate them with gestures on your own body, the superstition goes. Doing so will predispose you to the same wounds or illnesses.
10. Polish: Złap się za guzik
“Grab a button!”
In Poland, it’s believed that chimney sweepers bring luck. And if you ever happen to see one walking down the street, you should immediately grab a button affixed to your clothes. If you happen to be caught sans buttons, well, too bad for you.
11. Chinese: 送钟 (sòng zhōng)
“Giving a clock”
In China, it’s considered very rude (and very bad luck) to give someone a clock as a gift. That’s because the expression for “giving a clock” — 送钟 (sòng zhōng) — sounds very similar to the expression for “attend a funeral/bid farewell to someone on their deathbed” — 送终 (sòng zhōng). Giving your friend a clock is sort of a passive-aggressive (nay, maybe even aggressive) way to say that their time is up and you’d like to see them croak.
12. Greek: Πιάσε κόκκινο (piase kokkino)
When two people accidentally say the same thing at the same time, they might say “jinx!” (as in America) — or perhaps “Πιάσε κόκκινο (piase kokkino)” in Greece. According to Greek superstition, accidentally parroting each other is a sign that two people are about to get into a fight, and that in order to prevent an argument, the two must touch something red right away.
13. Filipino: Tao po!
This is a common expression Filipinos use when knocking on someone’s door, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. The word “tao” means “person,” which is a way of letting the people inside know that the person knocking is, in fact, human, and not an evil spirit or supernatural creature.