by Belle Waring on April 23, 2018

We were once at a psychiatrist session that was actually for another family member, but I was kind of getting grilled. No, I was for real getting grilled. Are you crazy or nah, was the line of questioning. I mean, maybe I suffer from serious mental illness, sure, but this question seemed out of place in the context: do you have any rituals that you have to do. Ha, no! I am not crazy in this particular OCD way! Take that! And then the psychiatrist asked whether I had any superstitions. Umm.

Only one, I said, that you can’t put a hat on the bed, and especially not on a made bed because that is just straight disastrous. But I made an exception for doll hats, while at the same time feeling uncomfortable about it. (When you have little girls with dolls life would be tough otherwise.) Then everyone started laughing. You have a billion superstitions, they pointed out. OK fine, maybe I think that if you’re walking with someone and something comes between you, like the pole of a parking sign or some sort of stanchion, one of you has to say “bread and butter” and then the other has to respond with “come to supper.” Otherwise…maybe you might not get along, like something came between you in that sense? And if you kill a spider it will rain. That’s just common sense. When you get an ice-water-down-your-back feeling it’s because somebody walked over your grave (this is silly because I plan to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in the lovely May River; do I think someone kayaked over my grave or something?).

If you spill any salt at all you have to throw some over your left shoulder. Oh, this one is heavy duty: don’t take the salt out of the air. Like, you have to put it down on the table and allow the other person to pick it up. I am so serious about this one; so is everyone in my family. As a child my father waited until his aunt was very absorbed in conversation, and when she asked for the salt he handed it to her directly, and when she realized what had happened she reacted so strongly that she pushed her chair right over and fell backwards to the ground. I have convinced my in-laws to humor me in this regard by making no movement and looking at them sadly when they pass the salt until they put it down on the table in mild exasperation. There are others but I can’t think of them right now. My children were taught additional ones by our Filipina maids. Such as, your hair is stealing your growth, so cutting it will make you grow taller (Zoe fell for that.) If you cut your hair at night, snakes will come. Every grain of rice you leave on your plate is a blemish on your future husband’s face.

When I was little I had more classically OCD ones I think, like not stepping on a crack to avoid breaking my mother’s back, to where I really caused myself difficulty on the sidewalk. I actually remember when I could first step on them, initially with trepidation, then with the glee of freedom. I used to have to run my hand along and count the railings of fences near our home in Georgetown (in D.C.) by groups of…I think eight, that seems random. But maybe all 12-year-olds are kind of OCD. Now the question: do I really believe in these superstitions? Some more that others: the hat on the bed kills me, and so does taking the salt out of the air. Do I feel compelled to do them? Yes, I just plain have to throw salt over my left shoulder pretty much anytime I cook. I believe them with double-consciousness; I can see that they’re just dumb while simultaneously being unable to get rid of them. Maybe if I did CBT and repeatedly took the salt out of the air I could numb myself to their effects. But what about you? Do you have superstitions? I want to hear new ones. Though there is the danger you will pick up someone else’s superstitions and be stuck with it.



Uncle Jeffy 04.23.18 at 2:38 am

I suppose it’s moot now, since we’ve ‘won’ in Iraq – but I believe today is Blessed Charles Kraphammer Day. Still lookin’ for those weapons (oh, yeah – I remember – they got sent to Bashar Al-Assad).

Say hi to Henry F. for me.


CDT 04.23.18 at 3:27 am

That’s an awful lot to keep track of. The only family superstition we had was to wear red on days when our home team (Nebraska Corhuskers) had a football game. It worked like a charm for five years ending in 1994, when Tom Osborne retired. After that, the link between my shirt selection and the team’s fortunes was broken.


Murali 04.23.18 at 5:05 am

I don’t cut my nails or go to the barber on tuesdays and fridays.

I’m somewhat bothered by walking under ladders as well scaffolding in construction sites.

I’m somewhat OCD in that when I see rectangular tiles that are roughly the size of my foot, I must only step on them length wise and as far as possible avoiding the edges (this is somewhat harder as I’ve got big feet)

Whenever there is a two way switch for a light, whenever the light is off both switches should be in the off position.


Belle Waring 04.23.18 at 9:11 am

Happy Krauthammer day, Uncle Jeffy! Hmm, happy seems not quite the right thing. Next year in Ramadi?

CDT: something’s interfering with the connection; just try harder.

Murali: Oh yeah I won’t walk under ladders. But can both switches be off on a two-way switch or isn’t one necessarily misleadingly on? They were like that in my grandfather’s house and I found it annoying. I agree it would be better to have them both in the off position. I feel you on the tiles, actually.

I have a black cat and she’s the second one I’ve owned done the slavish bidding of, so I can’t get too bothered about black cats.


sanbikinoraion 04.23.18 at 9:18 am

” I once read and interview with Johnny Vaughan when he was on the Big Breakfast where he said the secret to dealing with early mornings was to get in the shower as soon as you’re up. I have thought of that every time I have had a shower, ever.”
— John Robins

Richard Herring had John Robins on his podcast, and revealed that now, whenever he has a shower, he thinks about John Robins in the shower, thinking about Johnny Vaughn in the shower.

You’re welcome, everyone.


sanbikinoraion 04.23.18 at 9:19 am

I’m somewhat bothered by walking under ladders as well scaffolding in construction sites.

This one always gets mixed in with “superstitions” but to me just sounds like common sense.


Murali 04.23.18 at 9:34 am

The two way switch thing is something that you can get done in your house. (insofar as you have them) Back in 2010 when we moved house, my room had a two way switch (a bed-side and wall switch for the bedroom light). When it was initially set up one was always deceptively in the on position. However, once I informed the electrician about it, he pried open the switch, fiddled with a plastic thingamajig and now both are in the off position when the light is off (or both are in the on position when someone else messes up). So in principle, it isn’t too difficult to get the two way switch working the correct way.

For tiles, if you are ever in need of going to SGH, the lobbies should be tiled in a fishbone pattern.


Neville Morley 04.23.18 at 10:27 am

Stepping on the cracks means that there might be a bear round the next corner. Other than that, I leave the superstitions to my other half – a live bird in the house means a death in the family, for example, though room for debate about whether it counts if one of the cats was responsible for bringing it in – and my mother in law, who has various formal greetings for magpies rather than just resigning herself to sorrow.


MisterMr 04.23.18 at 10:50 am

When I hear an ambulance I have to scratch my testicles or I ll’have an accident;
If I touch the back of my ears I have to touch my forehead or otherwise I will become omosexual (this is from primary school and perhaps it was that if I ddn’t touch my forehead I signalled that I was omosexual, I’m not sure now).

Of course I don’t believe in these but I’m so used to them that I do these things without even realising.

Then there are other small rituals that are more a tradition than a superstition, like dont toast with analoholic beverages etc.


steven t johnson 04.23.18 at 12:04 pm

Personally I’ve not been so fortunate as to be surrounded by colorful characters with whimsical ways. Most everyone around me believes that God directs all sort of events in their lives, in pursuit of some ultimately wonderful end. They are each the stars of a cosmic drama. But this is very obvious this is not at all what “superstitious” is to mean.


John R Garrett 04.23.18 at 1:20 pm

I knock on wood, of course, but I tell myself it’s showing respect for the Druids…


Adam Roberts 04.23.18 at 1:20 pm

If I drink a whole glass of water (or any other drink, but usually it’s water) in one go I have to do it in seven sips. If I drink some of the contents of the glass and then, you know, put it down it or something it doesn’t matter. But if I’m hot and thirsty, let’s say I’ve just come in from cycling and I need rehydrating, and I fill a glass at the tap and drink it all down in one go …. seven sips. If I do it in fewer, or more, I just feel really uncomfortable. It’s not that I think anything bad will happen, that is to say, it’s not that this behaviour is pegged to any specific outcome good (when i do it) or bad (if I don’t), but I just really don’t like it if I empty the glass in anything other than seven sips.

My wife mocks me mercilessly for this, and I laugh along: yeah, yeah, it’s pretty weird. But inside I’m thinking: I’m not changing this for anyone.

I don’t know where this came from, btw. But there it is.


Trader Joe 04.23.18 at 2:44 pm

Back in the day I played baseball and that sport has a million of them.

One of the most basic was when you went out into the field you either always stepped on a base line or always didn’t step on a base line – it didn’t matter which you did, but once you picked you always had to do that or disaster would follow. I played catcher and second so I never stepped on one since you didn’t cross one as a catcher, but when I played second I always deliberately stepped on the first base bag as I went out (the base isn’t a line and important exception to the line rule).

The other that everyone followed was dugout seats. If you scored runs in an inning, the following inning everyone returned to the exact seat they were in the previous inning – I’ve seen fights over this. There are dozens more but it there is a more superstitious place than a baseball diamond I’ve never been there.

Apart from that the only other one always followed is not eating chicken on New Year’s day – my grandmother always said chickens have to scratch for their food and if you chicken on New Years you will too. In her memory I can say I’ve always followed it and judging by the bathroom scale I guess it works cause I’m not scratching for food either.


Jim Buck 04.23.18 at 3:01 pm

I was brought up in a city that was once famous for the manufacture of cutlery. So, I absorbed a lot of superstitions about that. Crossed knives meant that an argument was imminent. A knife could never be given as a present, but only exchanged for a coin (no matter what value). Crossed spoons signified a marriage. I proposed to my wife after encountering crossed spoons.


NickS 04.23.18 at 3:03 pm


Anarcissie 04.23.18 at 3:21 pm

The philosopher Smullyan said, ‘Superstition brings bad luck.’

A Hindu once told me that he never leaves a piece of money, however small, on the ground, for two reasons: first, at one time it usually had the picture of a god or king on it, and thus leaving it on the ground risked blasphemy or lèse majesté; and second, money represents labor, and thus even a small coin — a penny — represents a piece of someone’s life, and deserves respect. Although I knew the Federal government and others make billions wink in and out of existence with no more labor than pressing a key on a keyboard, the second appealed to me, so I began picking up lost change and placing it in a better place, like a windowsill or wall.

However, I’m really making noise here because of the mention of psychiatry. Do shrinks really carry on about superstitions? The weird mind control police seldom fail to surprise. What do they make of it? Do they really mix it up with OCD?


MPAVictoria 04.23.18 at 4:18 pm

I am ridiculously suspicious in some ways. I knock on wood whenever I talk about anything good or bad happening. I am agnostic but I pray multiple times a day for the safety of my loved ones and family.


Brett Dunbar 04.23.18 at 5:38 pm

Two way switches are usually wired so that in phase is on and out of phase is off. Doing it the other way is trivial, you swap the wires to the other side in one of the switches.

Which way a single switch is on varies by country, in the UK down is on and up is off, while Americans do it the other way. In Japan switches tend to be sideways.


oldster 04.23.18 at 5:38 pm

I am somewhat obsessive about lids, tops, closures in general. I am made uneasy when the threads on jars misthread, and I have to loosen them and thread them down properly.

This is partly the mechanic’s dislike of cross-threading, which is a catastrophe for machines, and partly (I think?) the result of childhood experiences where I took things from the fridge believing that the lids were secure, and had the jar fall out on the floor while the lid stayed in my fingers.

But that sounds more reasonable than it is. I am not a tidy person, so when I am fixated on getting lids correctly threaded and cinched down, it smacks more of obsession than of reasonable concerns.

Also, I am a toothpaste-tube- straightener (and always thread the cap on correctly, duh), and when I use tea from the company that packages it in a waxed-paper envelope inside the box, I carefully refold the wax-paper every time after taking out a tea-bag.

That keeps the tea fresher, you see. (ha ha who am I kidding).


Maria 04.23.18 at 6:13 pm

I have to parse
what people say
into groups of
four syllables.

And the fours
into threes
so it all
sums to twelve.


Doug K 04.23.18 at 6:25 pm

“double-consciousness; I can see that they’re just dumb while simultaneously being unable to get rid of them.”
Just so. I am glad to know I’m not alone..

still throw spilled salt over the left shoulder. I hadn’t heard of not passing salt in the air, happily, and will continue to pretend I never heard of it.

to avert the evil eye and bad sooth, I have large numbers of superstitions:
– tell my children “break a leg” for their exams etc. This is from the theatre world and my father.
– touch wood, for any errant thought of mine that might attract the demons. Apparently stainless steel or iron can also work, though I can no longer remember why I believe this.
– my Greek friends spit for this purpose. It’s become stylized so you don’t have to actually expectorate, a sideways turn of the head and ‘ptoo,ptoo’ suffices.

Cut nails have to be washed away by water as ill-wishers could gather and use them for their ill purposes. This is one I picked up later in life somehow.


Theophylact 04.23.18 at 7:21 pm

None. But I remember this story:

It is said that a visitor once came to the home of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Niels Bohr and, having noticed a horseshoe hung above the entrance, asked incredulously if the professor believed horseshoes brought good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I am told that they bring luck even to those who do not believe in them.”



Mike T. 04.23.18 at 7:58 pm

Sports fandom is the worst for this sort of thing. Last night I was watching a game and my team was losing. My wife came in, eating a quesadilla, and my team’s fortunes picked up. So we decided she had to cook more quesadillas and eat them throughout the rest of the game.
The game was DVR’ed—it had actually ended hours earlier.


Zora 04.23.18 at 8:43 pm

When an ambulance or a firetruck passes me, on the freeway or elsewhere, I say “Kanzeon, Kanzeon, Kanzeon.” Kanzeon = Kuan Yin = Avalokiteshvara = boddhisattva of compassion. Because I know someone is in trouble and I hope that all goes well.

When I promise to show up at a certain time or place, I say “I will be there, insh’allah.” Because life is unpredictable and fleeting.


Whirrlaway 04.23.18 at 9:44 pm

If you kick a stone, you have to carry it to the next stupa. Is that a superstition or an observance or are they the same thing?


novakant 04.23.18 at 9:53 pm

I go from 12 straight to 14 when naming saved versions of files – not very original I guess.

Apart from that I’m not superstitious at all, though do sometimes engage in the type of irrational and counter-productive thinking that CBT was invented to combat.


JPL 04.23.18 at 11:11 pm

Oh, my goodness! You mustn’t kill spiders, especially in the house! If you kill a spider in the house that’s very bad luck. Spiders are protectors of the house.

You mustn’t pass salt across a doorway or boundary between rooms, like from kitchen to dining room; it must be put down on the other side. (Salt, apparently, is subject to a lot of superstitions in different cultures and even families.)

And I do have rituals, I guess quite a few.


Alan White 04.23.18 at 11:44 pm

For most all my near 40-year career in the classroom, I carried an aluminum chalk-holder in my pocket, even though by the next-to-last semester before I retired, the last chalkboard at my campus was taken out in favor of those white-board abominations. The plastic cap had long worn down from a dome to a ring; the holding mechanism had been replaced years ago. I called it “Dumbo’s Feather” in respect to my superstitious belief–or maybe just holding on to the longest punchline to a joke in human history–that I could only teach with it in my pocket. Really. I admitted this to an audience at UW–Madison during an invited presentation on April 1, 2005, in arguably an instance of self-referentially opaque satire.


Belle Waring 04.24.18 at 2:34 am

Anarcissie: the diagnosis was indeed that these are manifestations of OCD-type problems. And to be fair I have disturbing intrusive thoughts that I thought were depression-related due to their negative content but which are regarded as manifestations of OCD as well, so, maybe.

Reading this reminds me of superstitions I forgot to mention. Knocking or touching wood, for sure, and paper will count in a pinch. You can make a wish by blowing a fallen eyelash off your finger but it’s less likely to come true if it doesn’t go till the second try, so you need to make sure it’s all dry and clean. Money is good luck if it’s heads up but neutral otherwise; however I will flip money (my sister does this and I think she poisoned my mind here) so it’s heads up and so lucky for the next person. Singaporean money is a bit difficult as no one can agree what’s heads. Probably the side with the crest rather than the denomination, but then the crest looks so back-of-the-money-ish to me, just like the back of a dime. Where’s Yusof bin Ishak’s head when we need it (busy being on every paper note I guess. Oddly, Lee Kwan Yew is on nothing. Literally nothing. Not a primary school, not a road, not a statue, not a $2. It’s positively odd. I can only imagine it was his wish in life but honestly he deserves some…thing regardless of his merits. I mean, he’s historically important.) If you turn someone’s necklace around so the clasp is in the back they can make a wish. Kives as gifts, yeah, dubious. My dad gave me a set of Sabatier knives for my wedding after asking if it would be OK, but I think it was a passive agressive expensive move. A wonderful one! But. My children are resentful I have saddled them with all these dumb superstitions. I predict Zoe will throw them off in a fit of scientific rationalism whereas Violet is already teaching them to her friends so they don’t stray from the path of righteousness and good luck.


Murali 04.24.18 at 2:50 am

Belle, for Singapore coins, the side with the crest is heads


JakeB 04.24.18 at 3:07 am

I throw salt over my shoulder when I spill it, and whenever I do, my girlfriend roars (to the degree a petite woman with a naturally quiet voice can roar), “Oh! My salty eyes!” as if the devil is reacting to being blinded. In fact that’s part of the ritual now, I would say.

I’m an atheist but whenever I am leaving a loved one for what I expect to be a long time I will say, “Go with God.”


Layman 04.24.18 at 6:05 am

I’m a firm believer in Murphy’s Law – or Sod’s Law if you prefer. Does that count as a superstition?


MFB 04.24.18 at 7:35 am

I’m not superstitious, no, not me, absolutely not, cross my heart and hope to die, but my partner (well, my wife actually, but let’s not challenge fate) believes firmly that any time she goes overseas, the value of the rand against the dollar will diminish progressively up to and until she has bought her foreign currency, after which it will rise again. So far her superstition has proven 100% accurate.

Incidentally, the amaMpondo in the east of the province where I live believe that it’s exceptionally good luck to have a snake visiting your house once you’ve constructed it, because this is a sign coming from the ancestors; you’re supposed to clap your hands three times and bow to the snake (or snakes).

Which doesn’t mean that either me or my partner were happy about the huge Puff Adder which came visiting yesterday, forcing us to kidnap our cats and call in a snake whisperer . . .


philip 04.24.18 at 7:51 am

I’ll throw salt over my left shoulder and touch wood. If there’s no wood available I’ll touch my head, handy tip from my mum there. Other stuff I don’t think about as much because it is avoiding doing something so it is not like I’d go round walking under ladders or breaking mirrors if they weren’t meant to bring bad luck and I don’t put new shoes on a table more out of social convention tan any belief something bad is going to happen. I scoff at the number 13 being unlucky.

I can never remember when black cats are meant to be lucky or unlucky so always kind of think of them as lucky. My football team is Sunderland and their nickname is the black cats. Most likely because a black cat was meant to have worked into the dressing room in the 1937 FA cup final. This was the first time they won it after being one of the best teams at the time with 5 league titles and winning the league and losing to Aston Villa in the final the previous year. Now they have had consecutive relegations and will be playing in the third tier of the league structure so could do with some good luck. People have lots of match day rituals but when you have form like Sunderland’s over the last two years that goes out of the window.

Our local rivals are Newcastle who play in black and white are the magpies (although Notts County are less famous but had the nickname first). I used to work with someone that would salute magpies and have to say something, but I can’t remember what and if it was only if it was one for sorrow. Anyway here is a song about magpie superstitions.


engels 04.24.18 at 12:00 pm

I believe Richard Wollheim was allergic to newspaper; sometimes I wonder if it would be possible to develop a similar allergy to the internet.


dave heasman 04.24.18 at 5:26 pm

“you swap the wires to the other side in one of the switches”

you turn the circuit off at the consumer unit and turn the switch upside down.

Don’t muck about with wires if you don’t have to.


Keith B 04.24.18 at 6:09 pm

The best discussion of superstitions is in this scene with Buddy Ebsen.


js. 04.24.18 at 6:11 pm

It’s not a superstition and I don’t actually follow it (consciously), but we taught never to step on any “writing” — basically any semantically significant, linguistically expressed text. But I think it can even extend to any letters of the alphabet, etc.

This is kind of a Muslim thing, tho possibly a specifically South Asian Muslim thing.


maidhc 04.24.18 at 9:53 pm

A few years ago I adopted the custom of making a small bow to the new moon the first time that I see it. Not that I think anything would happen if I didn’t. I like it because a.) it’s traditional b.) it reminds me where we are in the lunar cycle.

I also have the idea that you can make a wish when you go underneath a moving train (like at an underpass). I think that’s one my mother and I made up because we thought there should be something that happens when you go under a moving train.


John Quiggin 04.25.18 at 3:57 am

Another not exactly superstition thing: I remember Pauline Kael writing of the horror she aroused in a friend by using a trashy paperback book as a fire-starter. I guess this was the lead-in to a review of Fahrenheit 451. I don’t think I could easily burn a book, although I am happy to toss them in the recycling bin.


bad Jim 04.25.18 at 6:43 am

Back when I was writing software, my partners used to rely on my somewhat compulsive predictability, going so far as to blame me for an unlocked back door. Now that I’m retired, I’m occasionally surprised to realize that I’ve brushed my teeth without flossing first.


Nick Barnes 04.25.18 at 11:51 am


oldster 04.25.18 at 1:22 pm


I agree entirely about the difference between setting a book on fire and recycling it, and I agree that the reaction is irrational.

This looks to me more like taboo than superstition, but I’m not sure how distinct the phenomena are (I’m sure there are cases of overlap, but perhaps there’s a distinction to be articulated?)

The book case reminds me of those studies in which experimenters fashion chocolate into the shapes of repellent or noxious objects, e.g. a chocolate shaped liked dog poop. Even people who are firmly convinced that it is chocolate and not dog poop feel a visceral reluctance to eat it, while acknowledging that the reaction is irrational. It’s just the same old chocolate, not intrinsically affected by its shape. And yet one’s gorge rises.

So too with the book–it’s the same old destruction of a book, whether you burn it or pulp it in recycling. But I would feel a visceral unwillingness to burn it.

In these taboo cases, one can often genealogize them as a matter of over-generalizing a sound principle, “building a fence around the commandment,” so to speak. It’s a sound principle not to eat dog poop; avoiding all food that looks like dog poop is an over-generalization. It’s a sound principle not to burn books for reasons of politics or censorship; avoiding all burning of books is an over-generalization.

I suppose that applies to some superstitions as well: it’s a sound principle not to walk under a workman on a ladder who is juggling a handful of heavy bricks and might drop one at any moment. Avoiding all ladders is an over-generalization.

(And that some taboos and superstitions may involve over-generalization is a sound principle. But to claim that all of them do would be….)


Belle Waring 04.25.18 at 1:28 pm

Thanks Murali! It is as I suspected…


Layman 04.25.18 at 2:52 pm

Also, for many years, I was unable to stop reading a book I’d started, no matter how bad it was. I don’t think this was really a superstition as much as it was something I’d been taught by my parents. Thank goodness I got over it, there are too many bad books, and too few years to waste on the really bad ones.


AnthonyB 04.26.18 at 2:55 am

One wasn’t supposed to step on the university seal inlaid in the terrazzo just inside a bustling campus building full of amenities: failure to gain your degree within the usual timeframe was the supposed consequence. (We graduate students reasoned that it didn’t apply to us.)


Michael 04.26.18 at 4:24 am

Describing ordinary superstitions as OCD trivializes OCD. People with OCD spend AT LEAST an hour each day focused on their obsessions. Nor are all 12 year olds kind of OCD- this is a description of what actual children with OCD go through:
In fact, one of the most common forms of OCD in women is a fear of intentionally or unintentionally harming their children.

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