Where Do Superstitions Come From, And How Do They Spread?

Language and superstition are entwined with each other like broken mirrors and bad luck.
Where Do Superstitions Come From, And How Do They Spread?

Superstition is part of being human. Even the biggest skeptic, who can find reasoned explanations for any coincidence, will still have to face their irrational beliefs once in a while. It might be entirely subconscious, but the things we were told as children can affect the way we act. A black cat crossing anyone’s path is bound to cause at least a moment’s hesitation. You probably haven’t even paused to wonder where superstitions come from, and how they’ve gotten inside your head.

Looking where superstitions come from and how they spread is a huge topic, and one that it would take multiple books to explore fully. Thus, we’re going to focus on the language of superstitions by looking at three different examples that capture different linguistic aspects of superstitious phenomenon.

Rhyme And Reason: Don’t Step On A Crack

Today, schoolchildren jump around the pavement to avoid concrete fissures because of a single line: “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.” (You might have also heard of a different variation on this, but the idea is always the same.) While children might not actually believe in this — it’s disproved pretty easily by stepping on a crack — it’s still a well-known phrase.

The idea that cracks bring bad luck is older than you might think. The belief that cracks might be filled with evil forces, or act as a weak point between the world of the living and the dead, goes back to the early Europeans. What exactly happens when you step on the crack has changed (some believed it would cause rain), but at its heart it’s always been about bad luck.

One notable aspect of the modern formulation is that it rhymes. This might sound silly, but studies have shown that rhyming affects believability, and this phenomenon has been dubbed the rhyme-as-reason effect. Study participants, presented with two different versions of the same phrase, were more likely to believe that the rhyming one is more accurate. Participants in one study rated “woes unite foes” as more believable than “woes unite enemies.” You can imagine “Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll rupture your father’s liver” would not have the same effect, for example.

It also helps that phrases that rhyme are easier to remember, and thus are more likely to get passed along from person to person. That’s why people who are getting married are still likely to look for something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. 

This rhyming scheme goes beyond superstitions, too. It comes up in quite a bit of folk wisdom, like the rhyme to remember which kind of snake is poisonous: “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack.” (That one is notoriously difficult to remember the order of, though, which can be tough when you’re confronted with a snake.) There’s also the famous rhyming example from the O.J. Simpson trial: “If [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” It’s irritating to think that a rhyme can make us more likely to believe something, but the brain works in mysterious ways.

Superstitious Sayings: Knock On Wood

The most constant superstitions are the ones that have become part of the common lexicon. Saying “knock on wood” (or “touch wood”) after saying something to avoid jinxing it. Raising a glass to “cheers” with your friends and family before you start drinking. Wishing someone “good health” (Gesundheit) after they sneeze. You might be so accustomed to these that you haven’t even connected saying them to “superstitions” per se.

Looking at just one of these, “knock on wood,” shows how innocuous phrases go back to deeply superstitious roots. There is not total agreement about the origin, but one of the more popular theories is that it comes from a Celtic belief that spirits inhabited wood, so you would call upon the spirits for good luck when you needed it. Or, there were evil spirits in the wood so you knocked so they wouldn’t be able to hear what you were saying and thus jinx you. Or maybe, if you’re Christian, it has something to do with the crucifixion (many superstitions have been incorporated into Christianity).

Most superstitious phrases are pretty mindless today, but they are tied into the belief that language itself has power. Historically, people would say “bless you” after a sneeze because they believed something about saying these words protected the sneezer from harm. It’s both a banal phrase and an incantation.

Lest you think it’s only English that has these sayings, be assured pretty much every language does. In Polish, you might yell Złap się za guzik meaning “Grab a button,” which you’re supposed to do for good luck when a chimney sweep walks past. In Spanish you might pass along the wisdom En martes ni te cases ni te embarques meaning “Don’t get married or take a trip on Tuesdays” because Tuesday is an unlucky day. In Chinese, bringing misfortune may be called 送钟 (“giving a clock”) because gifting someone a clock is bad luck. Whether someone is superstitious or only sorta stitious, they’re likely to use some of these phrases.

The Name Of The Beast: The Snallygaster

Continuing with the idea that language is magic, the act of naming something has always had special significance. In the Christian creation myth, God telling Adam, the first man, to name all the creatures is symbolically important because names are the lens through which humans interact with nature. Naming is also an important part of keeping a superstition alive.

You’re camping out in central Maryland. You hear a rustle nearby, and there seems to be some sort of creature lurking. What you think that creature might be relies heavily on whether you’ve heard of the Snallygaster or not. The Snallygaster is a creature that goes back to the early 18th century, when German settlers reported sightings of the Schneller Geist (“quick ghost”). It’s a half-bird, half-reptile with a metallic beak and tentacles, so generally horrifying. After being quiet for a few hundred years, sightings spiked in the early 20th century, when the Valley Register started publishing reports of the beast. Later, it was revealed that the Valley Register had made up the sightings to attract readers. So why did people keep seeing the Snallygaster until the 1950s, after the Valley Register had stopped reporting on it?

The naming of creatures like the Snallygaster is the most important part of spreading their existence. There is of course a bit of a correlation versus causation problem here. Were people reporting they saw the Snallygaster because they were reading about it in the newspaper and likely to confuse regular creatures with the monster? Or was it only when they heard the name that they were able to report that they saw an unusual creature? Without discrediting people who claim to have encountered monsters, it’s definitely the case that monsters are seen more after their name is spread far and wide.

Superstitions arise for any number of reasons, and superstitious language follows suit. A parent might tell their children that a monster lives down by the river in order to keep them from wandering too close. A friend might invent a terrifying tale to spook others around the campfire. Or, as happens frequently, someone runs into something that their rational brain cannot explain, and so the only option is to expand what is rational. To the skeptic, superstitious language creates and perpetuates ridiculous beliefs. To the believer, superstitious language attempts to capture all that we don’t yet understand about the world. But whether we’re stepping over sidewalk cracks, knocking on wood or avoiding an unknown creature in the forest, the rise and spread of superstition is inextricably linked to language.

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