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Very superstitious: Legends from around the world

Today is Friday the 13th, so don’t let a black cat cross your path, avoid walking under any ladders, and stay away from broken mirrors. You should probably also refrain from gifting clocks to elders, refuse to step over people, and make a point to step in some dog droppings—as long as it’s with your left foot. At least, that’s what some Northeastern faculty advise based on superstitions around the globe.

In order to avoid bad luck today, we asked faculty from Northeastern’s World Languages Center and Department of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies to share some of the superstitions from the cultures familiar to them.

Stacey Katz Bourns
Professor of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies; director of the World Languages Center

In France, it’s good luck to step in dog excrement—but only if it’s with your left foot; it’s bad luck if it’s with your right foot.

Qinghong Cai
Associate teaching professor of Chinese

In China, people traditionally won’t send a clock to elders because the word “clock” (钟) in Chinese sounds similar to the Chinese word (终) that means “end of life.” 

In China, people traditionally won’t send a clock to elders because the word “clock” in Chinese sounds similar to the Chinese word that means “end of life.”

Qinghong Cai Associate teaching professor of Chinese

It is also taboo for people to send a fan or an umbrella to Chinese newlyweds for the same reason as the clock case: the sounds of the Chinese characters for “fan” (扇) and “umbrella” (伞) are similar to the sound of the word (散), which means “to break up.”

For example, a store recently had a grand opening at the Assembly Row outlet in Somerville, Massachusetts. To show appreciation for their customers, they offered new umbrellas to everyone. My guess is that some Chinese customers may not appreciate this gift because it may remind them of the bad connotations of “breaking up.”

Inez Hedges
Professor Emeritus of French, German, Palestinian, and Israeli film

I’ve often taught François Truffaut’s 1960s French New Wave film Jules and Jim. Twice in that film it’s mentioned that it’s bad luck to leave your hat on the bed. I haven’t been able to figure out why. I’ve asked several students and we haven’t yet come up with an answer.

Agnes Varda’s film Cléo from 5 to 7 is also full of superstitions—including cabs with unlucky numbers and the advice never to wear anything new on a Tuesday.

Finally, in Chinese, the number four is unlucky because the sound of the word “se” is close to the word for “death.”

Kumiko Tsuji
Assistant teaching professor of Japanese

The numbers four and nine are considered to be unlucky because “four” in Japanese is sometimes pronounced し, which means “death,” while “nine” is also sometimes pronounced く,which means “suffering.” In the U.S., some old buildings don’t have a 13th floor, while Japan hospitals and some hotels don’t have a fourth floor. Often, room No. 4 and rooms 40 through 49 aren’t there. When you gift of a set of plates or cups, it is usually three or five rather than four. So if you are giving presents in Japan, be careful not to give four of anything.

Hearses are probably one of the most important bad luck symbols in Japan. If you see a funeral car passing, you should hide your thumb, making a fist with the thumb inside. The reason is that the thumb is like a parent finger, so by doing this you are protecting your parents from the spirit of the deceased that lingers around the car. Some people even hide their thumbs when passing a graveyard or a funeral.

You shouldn’t hand a knife to another person, but rather lay it down for the other to pick up. The belief is that handing a knife to someone will create conflict between them. (This is a Russian thing.)

Boris Yelin Visiting lecturer in Spanish

Boris Yelin
Visiting lecturer in Spanish

Yelin shared some superstitions from his Jewish and Russian upbringing.

  • You shouldn’t step over a person—for instance, if they are sitting on the floor and you walk by—because that person will stop growing. (This is a Russian thing.)
  • You shouldn’t name a child after someone in your family that is still alive. The belief is that you’re replacing them before their death or anticipating their death. (This is an Ashkenazi Jewish thing.)
  • If you’re unmarried, you shouldn’t sit at the corner of a table with your significant other because then you won’t get married. (This is a Russian thing.)
  • You shouldn’t hand a knife to another person, but rather lay it down for the other to pick up. The belief is that handing a knife to someone will create conflict between them. (This is a Russian thing.)