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UK superstitions

An umbrella with the design of the Union Jack in Greenwich, London

Question: You’re having lunch with your friends and a black-and-white bird lands in your path. How do you react?

A: Say, ‘Nice birdie!’ and throw it a corner of your sandwich.

B: Shoo it away – this sandwich is mine, and some bird isn’t going to get its beak on it!

C: Gasp in horror, blow it a kiss, run to the nearest tree shouting ‘touch wood!’, spit over your left shoulder and round off the whole ritual with the words, ‘Hello Mr Magpie, how’s your wife and children?’

If your answer is C, then welcome to the UK!

Don’t be alarmed. Magpies are part of the UK’s weird and wonderful superstitions. Even if you don’t believe in ‘good luck’ and ‘bad luck’, it’s fun to find out about these stories. Read on to discover 13 UK superstitions! (Wait a minute… 13? Isn’t that meant to be… unlucky?!)

1. Magpies

In the UK, magpies aren’t just known for being noisy – and having a taste for shiny things – as this well-known 18th century rhyme explains…

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret, never to be told

This refers to the number of magpies you see. Even if you’re not the superstitious type, once you’ve heard the rhyme, you might find yourself searching desperately for that second bird every time you see a flash of black and white!

Some people say that you can reduce the ‘bad luck’ from seeing one magpie by saying a special rhyme, touching wood, blowing the magpie a kiss or saluting it.

2. Mirrors

Be careful when you’re handling a mirror in the UK – superstition suggests you'll get seven years of bad luck if you break one!

Mirrors were once believed to be windows into other worlds – often worlds where things were the wrong way around. People may also have been frightened that a person’s reflection shatters when a mirror is broken. One theory is that they thought breaking a mirror was like breaking your soul.

Some people also believe that mirrors should be covered up during births and funerals, for fear the person’s soul might escape through them to another realm.

3. Umbrellas

The UK has a reputation for rain, so it’s hardly surprising that umbrellas play their part in popular superstition!

One myth is that it’s unlucky to open an umbrella indoors. Some say this has origins in 18th century London, when umbrellas were awkward to open and putting one up in a cramped space was sure to injure someone. Perhaps we simply don’t want to imagine rain when we’re in a nice, cosy house!

Lots of people joke that taking an umbrella outside with you means it will be sunny. But if you don’t bring an umbrella, it will rain for sure – however cloudless the sky in the morning.

Even if it’s not true, we think it’s good to be prepared!

4. Crossed fingers

Crossing your fingers is a lucky sign, and saying ‘Fingers crossed’ is the same as saying ‘Let’s hope that happens!’ or wishing someone luck. It’s a little like people in other countries say ‘hold thumbs’ or ‘knock on wood’.

5. Don’t step on the pavement lines

‘Don’t step on a line or you’ll fall and break your spine! Don’t step on a crack or you’ll fall and break your back!’

Walking along the pavement in the UK can be bad luck if you’re not careful where you put your feet – or so superstition would have you believe. Step on a crack between two paving stones, and you might even find yourself confronted by dangerous animals! One story often told to children is that bears are waiting around the corner to pounce on anyone foolish enough to step on one of the lines.

6. Numbers

Lucky and unlucky numbers are common in many countries and cultures – and the UK is no exception.

Seven is usually seen as the luckiest number, with three and eight following close behind.

Avoid the number 13 though – especially the date Friday 13th. This goes back to the Christian belief that the 13th person at the Last Supper with Jesus was Judas, who betrayed him and led him to be crucified, and ‘unlucky Friday’ was the day Jesus died.

Funnily enough, though, in a recent survey asking UK people to name their lucky number, 13 was the second most popular choice. Maybe some people just like to tempt fate…

7. Wishes: birthdays and bones

Legend has it that if you make a wish, then blow out all the candles on your birthday cake in one breath, your wish will be granted. Admittedly, it’s not so easy once you reach the age of 90 and there are 90 candles on the cake… but perhaps by that time, all your wishes have come true anyway!

If you have chicken or turkey for your traditional British Sunday roast, don’t ignore the little forked bone at the end of the neck of the bird. This is known as the ‘wishbone’. Traditionally, two ‘wishers’ each take an end of the bone in their little finger. They snap it in two, and whoever gets the bigger piece has their wish granted.

8. Weddings

Invitations, seating plans, worrying about whether the bride will turn up on time – you might have thought weddings were complicated enough already!

According to superstition, brides should wear ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’ as part of their outfit.

And after that, every aspect of the wedding is packed with potential luck – good and bad – from the colour of the dress (one verse goes: ‘Married in white, you have chosen right; married in black, you’ll wish yourself back’), to the day of the wedding (‘Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth, Wednesday’s the best of all…’), to the things you see on the way to the ceremony (for brides, lambs are lucky but pigs are unlucky; for grooms, policemen and clergymen are lucky).

For more on UK wedding superstitions, check out hitched.co.uk.

9. Ladders

Never walk under a ladder… and that’s not just because you might get a pot of paint dropped on your head. This superstition dates back to the days when people would be hanged for the worst crimes. Walking under a ladder was associated with walking to the hanging scaffold.

A pot of paint sounds almost appealing after that…

10. Sneezing

You probably know it’s polite to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes in the UK, but did you know the custom might have originated in the sixth century? The theory is that sneezing was seen as the first symptom of the plague, so people would say a blessing to ward off the disease.

Another theory is that people thought sneezing stopped your heart, just for a moment, and saying ‘bless you’ would make sure your heart keeps beating.

11. Keep your shoes off the furniture

And not just because they’re dirty! According to one UK superstition, putting shoes on the table (especially brand new shoes) is bad luck. Some people even avoid putting shoes on chairs or footstools. One explanation is that in coal mining communities, particularly in north England in the 19th century, a miner’s shoes would be placed on the table if he was killed in an accident. The gesture then became a symbol of death.

12. Black cats

Confusingly, black cats can be both lucky and unlucky in the UK, depending on who you ask. Some people say it’s a sign that good things are to come if a black cat crosses your path… while for others, it’s a terrible warning.

Maybe it’s just a question of how much you like cats?

13. Rabbits

Rabbits, unlike cats, are definitely lucky. Think of the Easter bunny, who brings chocolate eggs to children on Easter Sunday.

Keeping a ‘lucky rabbit’s foot’ (usually not made of real rabbit nowadays!) is also considered lucky. One children’s clapping poem goes ‘bunny bunny bunny bunny…’ – a throwback to the days when repeating the word ‘rabbit’ was supposed to bring good luck, especially at the start of the month.

Saying the words ‘white rabbit’ are also supposed to bring good luck.

Unless you’re six years old, however, you might want to avoid endlessly repeating ‘bunny bunny white rabbit’. People might think you’ve crossed the line from superstitious to just plain silly!
 

Read more about superstitions on the British Council LearnEnglish site.

Find out more about life in the UK in The Magazine and Living and studying in the UK.