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Episode
106

Superstitions

First published on
November 13, 2020
Weird World
-
20
minutes
Religion
The Catholic Church
Romans
Conspiracy theories

From black cats to Friday the 13th, superstitions exist in cultures all over the world.

Where do they come from? Why do so many people believe them? And is there any evidence to suggest that they are actually true?

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:10] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Superstitions, the belief that things are lucky or unlucky. 

[00:00:31] From the psychological reasons why we believe in superstitions and the religious implications of believing in superstitions to the origins of 5 different superstitions, I think it’s going to be quite a fun one.

[00:00:45] If you’re listening to this episode on the day it comes out, you might have noticed that it’s Friday the 13th, which is considered unlucky in lots of different countries, and don’t worry, we’ll be talking about that as well, and why it’s not really that unlucky at all.

[00:01:02] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, the transcript, and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:18] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:01:33] So if that's of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:40] And final point, thank you to Jachym, an awesome member of Leonardo English from the Czech Republic who requested this episode. I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:51] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:54] Superstitions are all around us, and no matter what country you’re from you’ve probably been culturally exposed to superstitions all of your life, even if they might not have immediately seemed to you like superstitions.

[00:02:11] If you look in the dictionary, it will define superstition as something like:

[00:02:17] “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation

[00:02:26] Or 

[00:02:28] “belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas about magic”

[00:02:35] Essentially it’s a belief in something that doesn’t make sense and is related to magic.

[00:02:41] Superstitions go back millennia, they go back thousands of years, yet they are still believed by billions of people. 

[00:02:50] Indeed, 50% of Americans say that they’re superstitious, and three quarters of people in the UK say that they knock on wood, they do this 'knock knock', to avoid bad luck.

[00:03:03] So if the dictionary basically says ‘it’s something that people do because they are ignorant’, why is half the world doing it? 

[00:03:13] We’ll get to some of the psychological reasons for it in a minute, but before that it’s good to understand a bit about the origins of superstitions, because this will help us understand why they are so embedded in our culture.

[00:03:29] The word superstition is thought to come from Latin, super-stare, to stand over, or to stand upon. Now, how that actually translates to the meaning of the word that we have now is a little unclear, but it’s thought to have come from the idea of standing over something and being amazed at it.

[00:03:53] Back in Ancient Rome, being superstitious was used to describe people who were too afraid of the Gods, and believed that there were certain things that they could do over and above the normal things that people were supposed to do that would influence the future.

[00:04:12] The word ‘superstitio’ was to be contrasted with ‘religio’, which was the normal, appropriate fear and belief in Gods.

[00:04:22] If you think about it from a religious doctrinal point of view, this idea that there are small, mundane things that people can do to influence their fate, and control the Gods is quite problematic. 

[00:04:39] World religions often have strict behavioural codes, things that people should and shouldn’t do, and if there is another set of seemingly random things that people should and shouldn’t do and these can affect their fate, then that doesn’t really fit with the religion that that person is following.

[00:05:02] Indeed, the Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful

[00:05:08] If you believe that you can change your fate just by throwing salt over your shoulder or by not seeing a black cat, then logically it’s quite hard to reconcile that with believing that there is an all-powerful God who controls your life.

[00:05:26] Superstition is actually right there in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, just above worshiping false gods, and is called a ‘perverse excess of religion’. 

[00:05:39] So you can understand, theologically at least, why superstition is problematic. 

[00:05:45] It’s at odds with the scriptures; logically both can’t exist at the same time and be true.

[00:05:52] In terms of where different superstitions come from, this is normally up for debate.

[00:05:59] There are lots of possible explanations about where they come from, with some being more probable than others.

[00:06:07] With all of them, they likely came from a time that something happened just before something good or something bad, and culturally people started associating the thing that happened before to the thing that happened after, believing that the first event impacted the second one.

[00:06:24] Interestingly, most superstitions predict that something bad is going to happen. 

[00:06:30] There are of course a few that are linked to good luck, for example finding a four-leaved clover, a four-leafed little plant, or carrying a rabbit’s foot, but most are negative.

[00:06:44] It's interesting to think why this is.

[00:06:48] There’s an idea in psychology called Negativity Bias, which is the idea that we are more affected by negative events than positive events. 

[00:06:58] If there are two events of equal intensity, of equal strength, one good and the other bad, then we feel the negative one more strongly than the positive one. 

[00:07:11] So bringing this back to superstitions, if something good happens we might just think, well that’s good, whereas if something negative happens it might have a greater impact on us, we remember it more strongly, try to put a reason on why it happened, and start engaging in behaviour that we believe might stop it happening in the future.

[00:07:36] OK, so that’s a little explanation about some of the psychological reasons that people believe superstitions exist. 

[00:07:44] Let’s get into some of the stories behind superstitions.

[00:07:48] We’re going to start with one that has a story I quite like, and that’s to do with umbrellas.

[00:07:54] Now, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside. Maybe you’ve just heard that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s also considered ‘bad luck’ in many countries.

[00:08:06] Why, you might ask?

[00:08:08] There is a theory that it was to do with the ancient Egyptians and their sunshades, but this isn’t really believed by many.

[00:08:17] The real reason is thought to have actually come from much more recently, from Victorian England. 

[00:08:25] England, as those of you who have visited the country will know, is a place where an umbrella comes in pretty handy

[00:08:33] Umbrellas began to be more and more widespread in Victorian England, but they were big, heavy things with dangerous spikes that could open quickly and without warning, injuring people around you.

[00:08:49] So presumably, when it was raining outside, people used to open their umbrellas inside, but children, family members and pets got hurt by these things opening quickly and dangerously, and so it became bad luck to open them inside.

[00:09:07] So there you go, the reason why you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside seems to actually be quite sensible.

[00:09:15] Our second superstition is to do with salt - when it’s unlucky, and when it’s lucky.

[00:09:22] Salt, as you may know, was a precious commodity throughout history. 

[00:09:28] Linguistically its importance has left a mark, with the expression ‘not worth its salt’ meaning ‘not worth its cost’, and the word ‘salary’, the money you get from a job, coming from the term for money Roman soldiers were given to buy salt.

[00:09:45] So, salt was important, and spilling salt, dropping salt on the ground accidentally, was considered very bad luck. You can see why spilling salt would be bad luck. It was expensive and precious, and so damaging it was obviously not something that you wanted to do.

[00:10:05] And going back to the year 3,500 BC it’s thought that the Ancient Sumerians decided that throwing a pinch of salt, a small amount of salt over their left shoulders would be a way of nullifying, of canceling the bad luck caused by spilling the salt.

[00:10:26] This superstition has been continued though, and in Judeo-Christian culture it’s also good luck to throw salt over your shoulder. The theory goes that Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus spilled salt, because he is portrayed doing so in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and so if you want to have good luck you should do the opposite of what someone very bad has done.

[00:10:55] It’s not clear whether you need to sweep it up after you’ve thrown it down though. I guess in the Renaissance, or in 3,500 BC sweeping the floors wasn’t quite so important.

[00:11:08] Our third superstition is one of the most popular superstitions, and that is something that three quarters of people in the UK say that they do, and that’s to knock on, our touch, wood, 'knock knock'.

[00:11:22] Now, I guess you know how this one works, you’ve probably seen people doing it, and you might even do it yourself. After saying something you touch wood either as a way of hoping that something you want to happen will happen, or of preventing something you don’t want to happen from happening.

[00:11:41] Where this comes from, though, is debated by historians.

[00:11:45] Some think it comes from when you would need to swear over a crucifix to promise something was true. If you were a true Christian you would never tempt fate by lying when touching the cross, and so tapping wood was a connection to this idea.

[00:12:04] There’s another idea that peasants in Europe would knock loudly on their wooden doors to keep away evil spirits, and so the wood is to represent a door.

[00:12:17] There’s also the idea that both good and bad spirits live in trees, and so by tapping on a tree you could either get a good spirit to come out and help you or you could keep a bad spirit in, to stop something bad happening to you.

[00:12:34] There’s another theory that it actually came from a British children’s game where children would chase each other and could avoid being caught by touching a piece of wood.

[00:12:47] For this one it’s pretty unclear where it actually comes from - perhaps that’s one of the reasons that it is one of the most popular superstitions, that it just exists in popular culture for no clear reason, or at least, for disputed reasons. 

[00:13:03] If there was a superstition and everyone knew for sure where it came from it would do some damage to its credibility, so perhaps that’s a reason that the ones with the most debated origins tend to be the ones that are most widely believed.

[00:13:21] Our next superstition, our fourth superstition is a linguistic one, and it’s the reason that in English we say ‘bless you’ after someone sneezes, after they do ah-choo.

[00:13:34] This is thought to date back to the sixth century AD, and to have come from when there was a Great Plague raging through Europe. 

[00:13:44] One of the ways in which the plague passed from one person to the other was through coughing and sneezing, and so Pope Gregory I declared that when someone sneezed you should say ‘bless you’ as a way of protecting them.

[00:14:01] I was a little surprised to find that this reportedly came from the pope, given the Catholic Church’s current view on superstition, and it does seem a little strange to think that doctrinally a person’s fate can be influenced by another person saying two words, but this is one of the main theories.

[00:14:23] Another theory is that when you sneeze your soul is separated from your body and so by saying ‘God bless you’ it’s a way of stopping the devil from jumping in and stealing your soul.

[00:14:37] In your language I imagine you say a similar thing after someone sneezes because, well, sneezing normally comes when you have a cold, a flu, or something like that, and you’re not in great health. 

[00:14:49] So on one level it’s just a perfectly nice and reasonable thing to wish someone good health if they have just done something that indicates that they’re not in particularly great health right now.

[00:15:02] And our fifth and final superstition is two superstitions rolled into one, and it’s to do with Friday the 13th, or ‘today’ if you’re listening to this episode on the day it’s released.

[00:15:16] Before we go into this explanation, I should say that I hope you’re having a fantastic day, a better than normal day even, just to disprove all of the superstitions about Friday the 13th being an unlucky day. 

[00:15:31] Ok then, I’ve got that out of the way.

[00:15:34] So, there are a few theories about why the number 13 is considered so unlucky. 

[00:15:41] The first centres around the idea of 12 being a complete number - there are 12 months of the year, 12 hours on a clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 signs of the zodiac, and so on. 

[00:15:57] 13 is an outsider, a number that detracts from the completeness of 12.

[00:16:04] There were, of course, also 13 people to sit at the table for the Last Supper, with Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, thought to be number 13. 

[00:16:15] And going further back to ancient Norse mythology there’s a story of 12 gods being invited to dine at Valhalla, a great hall in Viking heaven, and a thirteenth god crashing the party, causing a huge fight, one of the good gods to die, and the world plunging into darkness.

[00:16:39] There’s even a word for fear of the number 13, it's "triskaidekaphobia". I guess you probably won’t need to use this one very much, but there you go.

[00:16:51] Triskaidekaphobia is a real problem though. Many buildings don’t have a thirteenth floor, most aeroplanes don’t have a 13th row, and it’s estimated that 10% of the US population, so that’s 30 million people, are afraid of the number 13.

[00:17:10] But why Friday, you might ask?

[00:17:12] Well, Friday isn’t a great day in the Bible. It was thought to be the day on which Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit, eventually causing man’s fall from Eden. It was also the day that Jesus was crucified.

[00:17:28] So when you combine the bad luck of the number 13 with the bad luck of Friday you are really getting into unlucky territory, so the superstition goes. 

[00:17:38] But it wasn’t really until the horror film Friday 13th, in 1980, that there was this real widespread idea that Friday 13th was a date where all sorts of terrible things happen.

[00:17:51] So is it actually that terrible, and should you keep a lookout tonight for all sorts of unlucky things?

[00:18:00] Well, no. 

[00:18:01] Indeed, there was a Dutch study from 2008 that suggested that there are fewer car accidents, fewer fires, and fewer bad things that happen on Friday 13 than on a normal day, presumably because people are careful, or they just avoid activities that could be considered dangerous in any way.

[00:18:24] So, if you are listening to this episode on Friday the 13th, I hope you’re having a marvelous day, full of good luck and joy.

[00:18:33] And if you’re listening to this episode and Friday the 13th has been and gone without you noticing any bad luck, congratulations, you’ve survived, and at least you now know a little bit more about where this superstition, and superstitions in general, come from.

[00:18:51] OK then, that is it for today's episode on superstitions, how they work, where they come from, and why people believe them.

[00:19:00] I hope it’s shed some light on a few superstitions that you might believe, might observe, or perhaps you think it’s all a load of rubbish

[00:19:09] As always, either way I'd love to know what you thought of the episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds. 

[00:19:21] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, and to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to be a cool cat like Jachym and request episodes then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:19:42] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:19:47] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:10] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Superstitions, the belief that things are lucky or unlucky. 

[00:00:31] From the psychological reasons why we believe in superstitions and the religious implications of believing in superstitions to the origins of 5 different superstitions, I think it’s going to be quite a fun one.

[00:00:45] If you’re listening to this episode on the day it comes out, you might have noticed that it’s Friday the 13th, which is considered unlucky in lots of different countries, and don’t worry, we’ll be talking about that as well, and why it’s not really that unlucky at all.

[00:01:02] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, the transcript, and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:18] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:01:33] So if that's of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:40] And final point, thank you to Jachym, an awesome member of Leonardo English from the Czech Republic who requested this episode. I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:51] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:54] Superstitions are all around us, and no matter what country you’re from you’ve probably been culturally exposed to superstitions all of your life, even if they might not have immediately seemed to you like superstitions.

[00:02:11] If you look in the dictionary, it will define superstition as something like:

[00:02:17] “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation

[00:02:26] Or 

[00:02:28] “belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas about magic”

[00:02:35] Essentially it’s a belief in something that doesn’t make sense and is related to magic.

[00:02:41] Superstitions go back millennia, they go back thousands of years, yet they are still believed by billions of people. 

[00:02:50] Indeed, 50% of Americans say that they’re superstitious, and three quarters of people in the UK say that they knock on wood, they do this 'knock knock', to avoid bad luck.

[00:03:03] So if the dictionary basically says ‘it’s something that people do because they are ignorant’, why is half the world doing it? 

[00:03:13] We’ll get to some of the psychological reasons for it in a minute, but before that it’s good to understand a bit about the origins of superstitions, because this will help us understand why they are so embedded in our culture.

[00:03:29] The word superstition is thought to come from Latin, super-stare, to stand over, or to stand upon. Now, how that actually translates to the meaning of the word that we have now is a little unclear, but it’s thought to have come from the idea of standing over something and being amazed at it.

[00:03:53] Back in Ancient Rome, being superstitious was used to describe people who were too afraid of the Gods, and believed that there were certain things that they could do over and above the normal things that people were supposed to do that would influence the future.

[00:04:12] The word ‘superstitio’ was to be contrasted with ‘religio’, which was the normal, appropriate fear and belief in Gods.

[00:04:22] If you think about it from a religious doctrinal point of view, this idea that there are small, mundane things that people can do to influence their fate, and control the Gods is quite problematic. 

[00:04:39] World religions often have strict behavioural codes, things that people should and shouldn’t do, and if there is another set of seemingly random things that people should and shouldn’t do and these can affect their fate, then that doesn’t really fit with the religion that that person is following.

[00:05:02] Indeed, the Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful

[00:05:08] If you believe that you can change your fate just by throwing salt over your shoulder or by not seeing a black cat, then logically it’s quite hard to reconcile that with believing that there is an all-powerful God who controls your life.

[00:05:26] Superstition is actually right there in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, just above worshiping false gods, and is called a ‘perverse excess of religion’. 

[00:05:39] So you can understand, theologically at least, why superstition is problematic. 

[00:05:45] It’s at odds with the scriptures; logically both can’t exist at the same time and be true.

[00:05:52] In terms of where different superstitions come from, this is normally up for debate.

[00:05:59] There are lots of possible explanations about where they come from, with some being more probable than others.

[00:06:07] With all of them, they likely came from a time that something happened just before something good or something bad, and culturally people started associating the thing that happened before to the thing that happened after, believing that the first event impacted the second one.

[00:06:24] Interestingly, most superstitions predict that something bad is going to happen. 

[00:06:30] There are of course a few that are linked to good luck, for example finding a four-leaved clover, a four-leafed little plant, or carrying a rabbit’s foot, but most are negative.

[00:06:44] It's interesting to think why this is.

[00:06:48] There’s an idea in psychology called Negativity Bias, which is the idea that we are more affected by negative events than positive events. 

[00:06:58] If there are two events of equal intensity, of equal strength, one good and the other bad, then we feel the negative one more strongly than the positive one. 

[00:07:11] So bringing this back to superstitions, if something good happens we might just think, well that’s good, whereas if something negative happens it might have a greater impact on us, we remember it more strongly, try to put a reason on why it happened, and start engaging in behaviour that we believe might stop it happening in the future.

[00:07:36] OK, so that’s a little explanation about some of the psychological reasons that people believe superstitions exist. 

[00:07:44] Let’s get into some of the stories behind superstitions.

[00:07:48] We’re going to start with one that has a story I quite like, and that’s to do with umbrellas.

[00:07:54] Now, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside. Maybe you’ve just heard that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s also considered ‘bad luck’ in many countries.

[00:08:06] Why, you might ask?

[00:08:08] There is a theory that it was to do with the ancient Egyptians and their sunshades, but this isn’t really believed by many.

[00:08:17] The real reason is thought to have actually come from much more recently, from Victorian England. 

[00:08:25] England, as those of you who have visited the country will know, is a place where an umbrella comes in pretty handy

[00:08:33] Umbrellas began to be more and more widespread in Victorian England, but they were big, heavy things with dangerous spikes that could open quickly and without warning, injuring people around you.

[00:08:49] So presumably, when it was raining outside, people used to open their umbrellas inside, but children, family members and pets got hurt by these things opening quickly and dangerously, and so it became bad luck to open them inside.

[00:09:07] So there you go, the reason why you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside seems to actually be quite sensible.

[00:09:15] Our second superstition is to do with salt - when it’s unlucky, and when it’s lucky.

[00:09:22] Salt, as you may know, was a precious commodity throughout history. 

[00:09:28] Linguistically its importance has left a mark, with the expression ‘not worth its salt’ meaning ‘not worth its cost’, and the word ‘salary’, the money you get from a job, coming from the term for money Roman soldiers were given to buy salt.

[00:09:45] So, salt was important, and spilling salt, dropping salt on the ground accidentally, was considered very bad luck. You can see why spilling salt would be bad luck. It was expensive and precious, and so damaging it was obviously not something that you wanted to do.

[00:10:05] And going back to the year 3,500 BC it’s thought that the Ancient Sumerians decided that throwing a pinch of salt, a small amount of salt over their left shoulders would be a way of nullifying, of canceling the bad luck caused by spilling the salt.

[00:10:26] This superstition has been continued though, and in Judeo-Christian culture it’s also good luck to throw salt over your shoulder. The theory goes that Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus spilled salt, because he is portrayed doing so in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and so if you want to have good luck you should do the opposite of what someone very bad has done.

[00:10:55] It’s not clear whether you need to sweep it up after you’ve thrown it down though. I guess in the Renaissance, or in 3,500 BC sweeping the floors wasn’t quite so important.

[00:11:08] Our third superstition is one of the most popular superstitions, and that is something that three quarters of people in the UK say that they do, and that’s to knock on, our touch, wood, 'knock knock'.

[00:11:22] Now, I guess you know how this one works, you’ve probably seen people doing it, and you might even do it yourself. After saying something you touch wood either as a way of hoping that something you want to happen will happen, or of preventing something you don’t want to happen from happening.

[00:11:41] Where this comes from, though, is debated by historians.

[00:11:45] Some think it comes from when you would need to swear over a crucifix to promise something was true. If you were a true Christian you would never tempt fate by lying when touching the cross, and so tapping wood was a connection to this idea.

[00:12:04] There’s another idea that peasants in Europe would knock loudly on their wooden doors to keep away evil spirits, and so the wood is to represent a door.

[00:12:17] There’s also the idea that both good and bad spirits live in trees, and so by tapping on a tree you could either get a good spirit to come out and help you or you could keep a bad spirit in, to stop something bad happening to you.

[00:12:34] There’s another theory that it actually came from a British children’s game where children would chase each other and could avoid being caught by touching a piece of wood.

[00:12:47] For this one it’s pretty unclear where it actually comes from - perhaps that’s one of the reasons that it is one of the most popular superstitions, that it just exists in popular culture for no clear reason, or at least, for disputed reasons. 

[00:13:03] If there was a superstition and everyone knew for sure where it came from it would do some damage to its credibility, so perhaps that’s a reason that the ones with the most debated origins tend to be the ones that are most widely believed.

[00:13:21] Our next superstition, our fourth superstition is a linguistic one, and it’s the reason that in English we say ‘bless you’ after someone sneezes, after they do ah-choo.

[00:13:34] This is thought to date back to the sixth century AD, and to have come from when there was a Great Plague raging through Europe. 

[00:13:44] One of the ways in which the plague passed from one person to the other was through coughing and sneezing, and so Pope Gregory I declared that when someone sneezed you should say ‘bless you’ as a way of protecting them.

[00:14:01] I was a little surprised to find that this reportedly came from the pope, given the Catholic Church’s current view on superstition, and it does seem a little strange to think that doctrinally a person’s fate can be influenced by another person saying two words, but this is one of the main theories.

[00:14:23] Another theory is that when you sneeze your soul is separated from your body and so by saying ‘God bless you’ it’s a way of stopping the devil from jumping in and stealing your soul.

[00:14:37] In your language I imagine you say a similar thing after someone sneezes because, well, sneezing normally comes when you have a cold, a flu, or something like that, and you’re not in great health. 

[00:14:49] So on one level it’s just a perfectly nice and reasonable thing to wish someone good health if they have just done something that indicates that they’re not in particularly great health right now.

[00:15:02] And our fifth and final superstition is two superstitions rolled into one, and it’s to do with Friday the 13th, or ‘today’ if you’re listening to this episode on the day it’s released.

[00:15:16] Before we go into this explanation, I should say that I hope you’re having a fantastic day, a better than normal day even, just to disprove all of the superstitions about Friday the 13th being an unlucky day. 

[00:15:31] Ok then, I’ve got that out of the way.

[00:15:34] So, there are a few theories about why the number 13 is considered so unlucky. 

[00:15:41] The first centres around the idea of 12 being a complete number - there are 12 months of the year, 12 hours on a clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 signs of the zodiac, and so on. 

[00:15:57] 13 is an outsider, a number that detracts from the completeness of 12.

[00:16:04] There were, of course, also 13 people to sit at the table for the Last Supper, with Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, thought to be number 13. 

[00:16:15] And going further back to ancient Norse mythology there’s a story of 12 gods being invited to dine at Valhalla, a great hall in Viking heaven, and a thirteenth god crashing the party, causing a huge fight, one of the good gods to die, and the world plunging into darkness.

[00:16:39] There’s even a word for fear of the number 13, it's "triskaidekaphobia". I guess you probably won’t need to use this one very much, but there you go.

[00:16:51] Triskaidekaphobia is a real problem though. Many buildings don’t have a thirteenth floor, most aeroplanes don’t have a 13th row, and it’s estimated that 10% of the US population, so that’s 30 million people, are afraid of the number 13.

[00:17:10] But why Friday, you might ask?

[00:17:12] Well, Friday isn’t a great day in the Bible. It was thought to be the day on which Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit, eventually causing man’s fall from Eden. It was also the day that Jesus was crucified.

[00:17:28] So when you combine the bad luck of the number 13 with the bad luck of Friday you are really getting into unlucky territory, so the superstition goes. 

[00:17:38] But it wasn’t really until the horror film Friday 13th, in 1980, that there was this real widespread idea that Friday 13th was a date where all sorts of terrible things happen.

[00:17:51] So is it actually that terrible, and should you keep a lookout tonight for all sorts of unlucky things?

[00:18:00] Well, no. 

[00:18:01] Indeed, there was a Dutch study from 2008 that suggested that there are fewer car accidents, fewer fires, and fewer bad things that happen on Friday 13 than on a normal day, presumably because people are careful, or they just avoid activities that could be considered dangerous in any way.

[00:18:24] So, if you are listening to this episode on Friday the 13th, I hope you’re having a marvelous day, full of good luck and joy.

[00:18:33] And if you’re listening to this episode and Friday the 13th has been and gone without you noticing any bad luck, congratulations, you’ve survived, and at least you now know a little bit more about where this superstition, and superstitions in general, come from.

[00:18:51] OK then, that is it for today's episode on superstitions, how they work, where they come from, and why people believe them.

[00:19:00] I hope it’s shed some light on a few superstitions that you might believe, might observe, or perhaps you think it’s all a load of rubbish

[00:19:09] As always, either way I'd love to know what you thought of the episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds. 

[00:19:21] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, and to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to be a cool cat like Jachym and request episodes then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:19:42] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:19:47] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:10] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Superstitions, the belief that things are lucky or unlucky. 

[00:00:31] From the psychological reasons why we believe in superstitions and the religious implications of believing in superstitions to the origins of 5 different superstitions, I think it’s going to be quite a fun one.

[00:00:45] If you’re listening to this episode on the day it comes out, you might have noticed that it’s Friday the 13th, which is considered unlucky in lots of different countries, and don’t worry, we’ll be talking about that as well, and why it’s not really that unlucky at all.

[00:01:02] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, the transcript, and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:18] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:01:33] So if that's of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:40] And final point, thank you to Jachym, an awesome member of Leonardo English from the Czech Republic who requested this episode. I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:51] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:54] Superstitions are all around us, and no matter what country you’re from you’ve probably been culturally exposed to superstitions all of your life, even if they might not have immediately seemed to you like superstitions.

[00:02:11] If you look in the dictionary, it will define superstition as something like:

[00:02:17] “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation

[00:02:26] Or 

[00:02:28] “belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas about magic”

[00:02:35] Essentially it’s a belief in something that doesn’t make sense and is related to magic.

[00:02:41] Superstitions go back millennia, they go back thousands of years, yet they are still believed by billions of people. 

[00:02:50] Indeed, 50% of Americans say that they’re superstitious, and three quarters of people in the UK say that they knock on wood, they do this 'knock knock', to avoid bad luck.

[00:03:03] So if the dictionary basically says ‘it’s something that people do because they are ignorant’, why is half the world doing it? 

[00:03:13] We’ll get to some of the psychological reasons for it in a minute, but before that it’s good to understand a bit about the origins of superstitions, because this will help us understand why they are so embedded in our culture.

[00:03:29] The word superstition is thought to come from Latin, super-stare, to stand over, or to stand upon. Now, how that actually translates to the meaning of the word that we have now is a little unclear, but it’s thought to have come from the idea of standing over something and being amazed at it.

[00:03:53] Back in Ancient Rome, being superstitious was used to describe people who were too afraid of the Gods, and believed that there were certain things that they could do over and above the normal things that people were supposed to do that would influence the future.

[00:04:12] The word ‘superstitio’ was to be contrasted with ‘religio’, which was the normal, appropriate fear and belief in Gods.

[00:04:22] If you think about it from a religious doctrinal point of view, this idea that there are small, mundane things that people can do to influence their fate, and control the Gods is quite problematic. 

[00:04:39] World religions often have strict behavioural codes, things that people should and shouldn’t do, and if there is another set of seemingly random things that people should and shouldn’t do and these can affect their fate, then that doesn’t really fit with the religion that that person is following.

[00:05:02] Indeed, the Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful

[00:05:08] If you believe that you can change your fate just by throwing salt over your shoulder or by not seeing a black cat, then logically it’s quite hard to reconcile that with believing that there is an all-powerful God who controls your life.

[00:05:26] Superstition is actually right there in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, just above worshiping false gods, and is called a ‘perverse excess of religion’. 

[00:05:39] So you can understand, theologically at least, why superstition is problematic. 

[00:05:45] It’s at odds with the scriptures; logically both can’t exist at the same time and be true.

[00:05:52] In terms of where different superstitions come from, this is normally up for debate.

[00:05:59] There are lots of possible explanations about where they come from, with some being more probable than others.

[00:06:07] With all of them, they likely came from a time that something happened just before something good or something bad, and culturally people started associating the thing that happened before to the thing that happened after, believing that the first event impacted the second one.

[00:06:24] Interestingly, most superstitions predict that something bad is going to happen. 

[00:06:30] There are of course a few that are linked to good luck, for example finding a four-leaved clover, a four-leafed little plant, or carrying a rabbit’s foot, but most are negative.

[00:06:44] It's interesting to think why this is.

[00:06:48] There’s an idea in psychology called Negativity Bias, which is the idea that we are more affected by negative events than positive events. 

[00:06:58] If there are two events of equal intensity, of equal strength, one good and the other bad, then we feel the negative one more strongly than the positive one. 

[00:07:11] So bringing this back to superstitions, if something good happens we might just think, well that’s good, whereas if something negative happens it might have a greater impact on us, we remember it more strongly, try to put a reason on why it happened, and start engaging in behaviour that we believe might stop it happening in the future.

[00:07:36] OK, so that’s a little explanation about some of the psychological reasons that people believe superstitions exist. 

[00:07:44] Let’s get into some of the stories behind superstitions.

[00:07:48] We’re going to start with one that has a story I quite like, and that’s to do with umbrellas.

[00:07:54] Now, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside. Maybe you’ve just heard that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s also considered ‘bad luck’ in many countries.

[00:08:06] Why, you might ask?

[00:08:08] There is a theory that it was to do with the ancient Egyptians and their sunshades, but this isn’t really believed by many.

[00:08:17] The real reason is thought to have actually come from much more recently, from Victorian England. 

[00:08:25] England, as those of you who have visited the country will know, is a place where an umbrella comes in pretty handy

[00:08:33] Umbrellas began to be more and more widespread in Victorian England, but they were big, heavy things with dangerous spikes that could open quickly and without warning, injuring people around you.

[00:08:49] So presumably, when it was raining outside, people used to open their umbrellas inside, but children, family members and pets got hurt by these things opening quickly and dangerously, and so it became bad luck to open them inside.

[00:09:07] So there you go, the reason why you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside seems to actually be quite sensible.

[00:09:15] Our second superstition is to do with salt - when it’s unlucky, and when it’s lucky.

[00:09:22] Salt, as you may know, was a precious commodity throughout history. 

[00:09:28] Linguistically its importance has left a mark, with the expression ‘not worth its salt’ meaning ‘not worth its cost’, and the word ‘salary’, the money you get from a job, coming from the term for money Roman soldiers were given to buy salt.

[00:09:45] So, salt was important, and spilling salt, dropping salt on the ground accidentally, was considered very bad luck. You can see why spilling salt would be bad luck. It was expensive and precious, and so damaging it was obviously not something that you wanted to do.

[00:10:05] And going back to the year 3,500 BC it’s thought that the Ancient Sumerians decided that throwing a pinch of salt, a small amount of salt over their left shoulders would be a way of nullifying, of canceling the bad luck caused by spilling the salt.

[00:10:26] This superstition has been continued though, and in Judeo-Christian culture it’s also good luck to throw salt over your shoulder. The theory goes that Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus spilled salt, because he is portrayed doing so in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and so if you want to have good luck you should do the opposite of what someone very bad has done.

[00:10:55] It’s not clear whether you need to sweep it up after you’ve thrown it down though. I guess in the Renaissance, or in 3,500 BC sweeping the floors wasn’t quite so important.

[00:11:08] Our third superstition is one of the most popular superstitions, and that is something that three quarters of people in the UK say that they do, and that’s to knock on, our touch, wood, 'knock knock'.

[00:11:22] Now, I guess you know how this one works, you’ve probably seen people doing it, and you might even do it yourself. After saying something you touch wood either as a way of hoping that something you want to happen will happen, or of preventing something you don’t want to happen from happening.

[00:11:41] Where this comes from, though, is debated by historians.

[00:11:45] Some think it comes from when you would need to swear over a crucifix to promise something was true. If you were a true Christian you would never tempt fate by lying when touching the cross, and so tapping wood was a connection to this idea.

[00:12:04] There’s another idea that peasants in Europe would knock loudly on their wooden doors to keep away evil spirits, and so the wood is to represent a door.

[00:12:17] There’s also the idea that both good and bad spirits live in trees, and so by tapping on a tree you could either get a good spirit to come out and help you or you could keep a bad spirit in, to stop something bad happening to you.

[00:12:34] There’s another theory that it actually came from a British children’s game where children would chase each other and could avoid being caught by touching a piece of wood.

[00:12:47] For this one it’s pretty unclear where it actually comes from - perhaps that’s one of the reasons that it is one of the most popular superstitions, that it just exists in popular culture for no clear reason, or at least, for disputed reasons. 

[00:13:03] If there was a superstition and everyone knew for sure where it came from it would do some damage to its credibility, so perhaps that’s a reason that the ones with the most debated origins tend to be the ones that are most widely believed.

[00:13:21] Our next superstition, our fourth superstition is a linguistic one, and it’s the reason that in English we say ‘bless you’ after someone sneezes, after they do ah-choo.

[00:13:34] This is thought to date back to the sixth century AD, and to have come from when there was a Great Plague raging through Europe. 

[00:13:44] One of the ways in which the plague passed from one person to the other was through coughing and sneezing, and so Pope Gregory I declared that when someone sneezed you should say ‘bless you’ as a way of protecting them.

[00:14:01] I was a little surprised to find that this reportedly came from the pope, given the Catholic Church’s current view on superstition, and it does seem a little strange to think that doctrinally a person’s fate can be influenced by another person saying two words, but this is one of the main theories.

[00:14:23] Another theory is that when you sneeze your soul is separated from your body and so by saying ‘God bless you’ it’s a way of stopping the devil from jumping in and stealing your soul.

[00:14:37] In your language I imagine you say a similar thing after someone sneezes because, well, sneezing normally comes when you have a cold, a flu, or something like that, and you’re not in great health. 

[00:14:49] So on one level it’s just a perfectly nice and reasonable thing to wish someone good health if they have just done something that indicates that they’re not in particularly great health right now.

[00:15:02] And our fifth and final superstition is two superstitions rolled into one, and it’s to do with Friday the 13th, or ‘today’ if you’re listening to this episode on the day it’s released.

[00:15:16] Before we go into this explanation, I should say that I hope you’re having a fantastic day, a better than normal day even, just to disprove all of the superstitions about Friday the 13th being an unlucky day. 

[00:15:31] Ok then, I’ve got that out of the way.

[00:15:34] So, there are a few theories about why the number 13 is considered so unlucky. 

[00:15:41] The first centres around the idea of 12 being a complete number - there are 12 months of the year, 12 hours on a clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 signs of the zodiac, and so on. 

[00:15:57] 13 is an outsider, a number that detracts from the completeness of 12.

[00:16:04] There were, of course, also 13 people to sit at the table for the Last Supper, with Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, thought to be number 13. 

[00:16:15] And going further back to ancient Norse mythology there’s a story of 12 gods being invited to dine at Valhalla, a great hall in Viking heaven, and a thirteenth god crashing the party, causing a huge fight, one of the good gods to die, and the world plunging into darkness.

[00:16:39] There’s even a word for fear of the number 13, it's "triskaidekaphobia". I guess you probably won’t need to use this one very much, but there you go.

[00:16:51] Triskaidekaphobia is a real problem though. Many buildings don’t have a thirteenth floor, most aeroplanes don’t have a 13th row, and it’s estimated that 10% of the US population, so that’s 30 million people, are afraid of the number 13.

[00:17:10] But why Friday, you might ask?

[00:17:12] Well, Friday isn’t a great day in the Bible. It was thought to be the day on which Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit, eventually causing man’s fall from Eden. It was also the day that Jesus was crucified.

[00:17:28] So when you combine the bad luck of the number 13 with the bad luck of Friday you are really getting into unlucky territory, so the superstition goes. 

[00:17:38] But it wasn’t really until the horror film Friday 13th, in 1980, that there was this real widespread idea that Friday 13th was a date where all sorts of terrible things happen.

[00:17:51] So is it actually that terrible, and should you keep a lookout tonight for all sorts of unlucky things?

[00:18:00] Well, no. 

[00:18:01] Indeed, there was a Dutch study from 2008 that suggested that there are fewer car accidents, fewer fires, and fewer bad things that happen on Friday 13 than on a normal day, presumably because people are careful, or they just avoid activities that could be considered dangerous in any way.

[00:18:24] So, if you are listening to this episode on Friday the 13th, I hope you’re having a marvelous day, full of good luck and joy.

[00:18:33] And if you’re listening to this episode and Friday the 13th has been and gone without you noticing any bad luck, congratulations, you’ve survived, and at least you now know a little bit more about where this superstition, and superstitions in general, come from.

[00:18:51] OK then, that is it for today's episode on superstitions, how they work, where they come from, and why people believe them.

[00:19:00] I hope it’s shed some light on a few superstitions that you might believe, might observe, or perhaps you think it’s all a load of rubbish

[00:19:09] As always, either way I'd love to know what you thought of the episode. You can head right in to our community forum, which is community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds. 

[00:19:21] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, and to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to be a cool cat like Jachym and request episodes then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:19:42] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:19:47] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]