“Superstitious” Translations Anyone?

While language certainly reflects the soul of a people, superstitions often depict its history and culture.

So here’s an overview of some ways in which ancient beliefs are still shaping people’s lives.

Entwined with national cultures and their history, superstitions link today’s tech-powered world to biblical times. It’s generally accepted that the Last Supper is the reason why thirteen is widely viewed as an unlucky number. And over 2,000 years later, hostesses still despair when their fourteenth dinner guest cancels at the last moment.

But in an odd twist, thirteen is a fortunate number in Italy and France, with venerdì or vendredi 13 considered a lucky date. It’s also a favorite number for betting on football games.

In contrast, Friday 17 in Italy is deemed unlucky, as its Roman numeral—XVII—is associated with death. Scrambled into the Latin word VIXI, it means I lived (and by inference am longer living). And that’s a bad augury for any day of the week!

The Oldest Good Luck Symbol?

Four-leaf clovers might be the oldest of the good luck symbols, going right back to the Garden of Eden. There’s a legend that an outcast Eve plucked a four-leafed clover as a memento of paradise, with its descendants still bearing a whiff of this enchantment.

Celts and Druids believed these shamrocks-plus-one have magical powers of protection against evil. In a fascinating syncretic tangle, Saint Patrick was said to have illustrated the Holy Trinity through a shamrock: one leaf each for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. As Celtic and Christian traditions blended during subsequent centuries, the four-leafed clover came to represent Faith, Hope, Love, and—for the fourth leaf—Luck.

If Looks Could Kill

Giving someone the side-eye also has a long history—back to the Sumerians living in the Euphrates Valley 5,000 years ago. They are credited with the invention of evil eye amulets: those blue-centered white circlets heaped up in souks and stalls all around the Mediterranean.

In Turkiye, newborns are protected by rubbing these amulets over their clothing and cradles. Also known as the Eye of Allah, these blue eyes protect many Muslim homes. When one of these eyes breaks, this shows that it absorbed the harm caused by a curse, and must be replaced immediately for continued protection.

Fingers Crossed

A more modern way of fending off the evil eye is crossing the first two fingers in a makeshift crucifix. This comes from southern Italy, where it was believed that a jettatore (spell-caster, from the Latin iactare: to throw) could blight a victim with a single blast of malocchio (evil eye).

In a unique blend of witchcraft and theocracy, Pope Pius IX (1792—1878) was a purported jettatore. Even while kneeling before Pio Nono for benedictions, devout Catholics would fold their hands into fists, defensive thumbs protruding between their index and middle fingers.

Touching or Knocking on Wood

Rooted in paganism, this ancient superstition reflects the belief that trees—particularly oaks and willows—are sacred homes to spirits. After a mild boast, an over-confident speaker may say Touch wood! (UK) or Knock on wood! (USA), as a way of placating vengeful sprites striking down perceived hubris.

Unsurprisingly, many other plants are believed to either bring luck or protect against misfortune.

  • In much of Latin America, eating twelve grapes at midnight on December 31 ensures a prosperous New Year, popping in the doce uvas de la suerte with each chime;
  • Coin-shaped lentils are a must at New Year’s feasts in Italy, symbolizing prosperity, and frequently spiced with succulent sausage;
  • Sprigs of rue—cimaruta, arruda, or ruda—are often tucked behind ears or hung over doorways and cradles, as this herb-of-grace keeps bad spirits away.

Gotta a Light, Mate?

Back when smoking was a bridge to fellowship, lighting three cigarettes from the same cigarette was taboo throughout much of Western Europe during the XX century.

This myth is rumored to have flourished in the trenches of World War I: lighting the first cigarette alerted the sniper, he took aim with the second, and had plenty of time to shoot the unlucky third smoker as the match burned out.

Fooling Fate for Good Fortune

A linguistically intriguing way of wishing someone luck (particularly actors) is to fake-curse them, hoping that the jealous gods will overlook their good fortune. The best-known example in English is perhaps the theatrical Break a leg!

Italian has its own version of this negative wish for a positive outcome: In bocca al lupo! But urging someone to leap into the wolf’s mouth is actually intended to fend off misfortune.

Takeaway: Superstitions are common to all creeds and countries. But it takes an expert—like the linguists at Trusted Translations—to ensure that these beliefs are conveyed accurately in culturally acceptable ways.

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu on pexels