Actions speak louder than words. But to the superstitious, almost everything carries a supernatural significance — even the words that come out of your mouth. There’s a whole world of superstitions and rituals out there that focus on what you’ve done to provoke the universe, and how you can ward off evil or keep bad luck out of your future. If avoiding path-crossing black cats and spilled salt isn’t enough, there are plenty of verbal superstitions to adhere to, meaning you have to watch what you say very deliberately, too. So choose your words carefully! Here are some weird and wacky verbal superstitions.
Six Very Particular Verbal Superstitions
Legend has it that if the first thing you say at the start of a new month is “Rabbit rabbit,” you’ll have good luck for the rest of that month. There are a couple of variations on this verbal superstition; some claim that you must say “rabbit” only once, some thrice over (that’s “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit”). And others are adamant that you have to say “white rabbit” to be successful. Furthermore, not everyone agrees on whether you have to make this little expression your very first utterance before anything else you say or whether you just have to say it before midday. Either way, it’s something to keep in mind when you fall asleep on the last day of any month to do immediately when you wake up.
The origin of this quirky cotton-tailed oral tradition traces back at least to the early part of the 20th century, when even U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who carried around a lucky rabbit’s foot, partook in the superstition. It’s thought to have originated in Britain before making its way across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.
“The Scottish Play”
If you’re a drama junkie or theater enthusiast, chances are you’ve heard of this time-honored verbal tradition. It involves William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Macbeth, one of the world’s most renowned works of drama. Those who believe in superstition avoid saying the name of the work in theaters, opting instead for the euphemistic expression “the Scottish play” to refer to it (assuming that anyone else who’s in on it will know what they’re talking about). Legend has it that the play has been doomed from the start; its first performance in 1606 was said to be a disaster after witches supposedly objected to Shakespeare’s use of real spells and incantations, and so they put a real-life curse on it.
If you accidentally say “Macbeth” in a theater, you’re supposed to leave the venue, spin around three times, spit, say the most vulgar word you can think of, then knock to be let back in.
“Break a leg”
Another theater-based verbal superstition about a forbidden phrase, “break a leg” is what you’re supposed to say to actors or performers before they head on stage to shine in the spotlight. The idea is that saying “good luck” is actually bad luck, and therefore you shouldn’t wish it on anyone. Ergo, wishing a tragedy or catastrophe on an actor is somehow a mechanism for staving off anything bad actually happening.
This superstition is reserved for those rare but remarkable moments of simultaneity between two or more speakers. If you and a friend accidentally say a word or phrase at the exact same time, the first of you to shout “Jinx!” takes the upper hand. The “jinxed” is doomed to silence until some condition, determined by the one who called the jinx, is met. Some people follow the jinx with “you owe me a Coke!” or, more generically, “you owe me a soda!”
The jinx isn’t broken — and therefore the jinxed person cannot speak — until the condition is met, whether it’s a drink debt repaid, a punch to the shoulder, or the utterance of the jinxed person’s name (sometimes up to 10 times). There are a whole lot of renditions on the classic jinx, and you can get creative!
In this context, “Bloody Mary” isn’t the name of an alcoholic tomato juice cocktail. But you might need some alcohol to recover from what you’ll see if you actually manifest the outcome of this ritual, one of the scariest of the verbal superstitions.
Legend has it that chanting the name “Bloody Mary” three times into a mirror in a darkly lit room summons the ghost of a witch who was accused of kidnapping and murdering young girls from her village. She allegedly stole their youth, and she was burned at the stake because of it. Some variations on the superstition claim that Bloody Mary will appear literally dripping in blood behind you, and in the most extreme versions of the story it’s said that she will possess you and rip your soul to shreds. Ouch.
“Knock on wood”
This is both a verbal and an action-forward superstition that is supposed to mitigate the negative consequences of speaking a wish or desire out loud, or to acknowledge a string of good fortune that one wants to continue. A lot of people believe that verbalizing what they want or hope will happen means that it can never happen that way or that they’ll end up with the opposite. It’s like tempting fate by saying “I’m having such a good day so far,” and then immediately finding out that your car was towed and your house has burned down. But if you say “knock on wood,” and you actually knock on a nearby piece of wood — don’t settle for synthetic or artificial substitutes — you’ll stave off a reversal of your good fortune or the possibility that your wishes won’t come true.