USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘superstition reverse’
Folk Beliefs

Knock on Wood

Subject: Folk superstition. “Knock on wood”.


“Interviewer: On the morning of a race, what would you do if someone said something about your own car running well, or someone else’s team maybe being on the frits, what would you make everyone do?”

Interviewee: When somebody would comment in that fashion, for 22 years of racing in Baja, the old knock on wood would come out. So I would make the whole crew knock on wood. Which typically was chrome molly.

Interviewer: How many. So for you the chrome molly was a good sub- good enough substitute for wood?

Interviewee: Tha- because there’s no wood in a lot of places down there.

Interviewer: So you didn’t do your head?

Interviewee: Nope, we knocked on the car.

Interviewer: Knocked on the car. Interesting.

[laughter from his wife]

Interviewer: Um, how many people were on the crew?

Interviewee: Typically, about twelve of us.

Interviewer: So all twelve people, you’d make them all stop the important work they were doing to make them knock on the chrome molly of the car?

Interviewee: Uhhh, all who were standing around at that time, yes.

Interviewer: So if someone was occupied, say, racing, they would not have to knock on the wood?

Interviewee: They would not have to knock on the wood.”

Background Info: S. Taylor grew up in Southern California he grew up snow skiing, water skiing, motorcycle driving, jet skiing, playing volleyball, and racing cars. He first heard the expression as a kid from his parents and the other adults on trips to the river, the Salton Sea, and Canyon Lake. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, C. Taylor and has one daughter.

Context: This story was shared over dinner after I asked my father if there were any activities, sayings, or traditions for him and his buddies either when they raced in Mexico or when they now attend off-road races. The only piece of shared culture he could recall is himself forcing everyone to knock on wood if something was said to potentially jinx the race.

Analysis: Off-road racing is particularly dangerous, more so than driving on the normal highway or around town, despite there always being a threat of danger. The practice of knocking on wood is employed to counteract any negative effects that might emerge because of someone saying something that is desirable, and you don’t want to jinx it. On the surface, this activity embodies the normal practice of knocking on wood. First, the trigger is a verbal expression of a positive outcome or aspect of a situation then someone says, “knock on wood” which triggers everyone in earshot to knock on wood. Second, it is an expression of people trying to gain autonomy over an unsure or indeterminant outcome or situation. If you say to a friend, “You studied hard for you Organic Chemistry final, you are going to do great!” They might tell you to or they themselves might knock on wood. The indeterminant future contains the material on the test, if the person will remember what they studied, and the grade they will receive. By knocking on wood, a person is showing their desire to control and fix one outcome, usually one that is most desirable to them.

However, the situation is distinct since an unusual material is used as a wood substitute and there is an effort to have unanimous participation by all in a group. First, my dad specifically mentioned that they would knock on the chrome molly of the car. In traditional enactments of the knock-on-wood counter curse, if real wood is not present, the only true substitute is one’s own head (a suggestion that the person’s head is made of wood or that the person is imbecilic for enacting this tradition). As a matter of fact, if one knocks on any other substance, a double jinx is enacted. Here, S. Taylor, cites choosing chrome molly as a suitable substitute because it is the only material present in abundance. I propose that the chrome molly is more significant since it is the primary material that makes up their race car. In racing, not only are the racers not in control of the wiles of fate, but they have very little control over the mechanics of their own car. By knocking on the car, they are enacting additional magic in the sense that they are doing a physical action on something to create a desired effect (be that the race or the car) to ultimately gain “a say” in the outcome.

Second, S. Taylor made it clear in the initial conversation and many times during the meal that everyone present was forced to knock on wood. Typically, only the speaker of the jinx is forced to knock on wood. This differentiation shows the element of teamwork and comradery shaping tradition. By enlisting the whole pit team and the drivers, a sense of importance is being diffused amongst all participants no matter their role in the outcome of the race. All have a shared liability in the outcome. Similarly, it reinforces a sense of belonging and purpose for the group when performing their individual roles. The counter curse is enlisted at the expense of their competitors, increasing morale and restating team members’ responsibility in working towards the success of their team.

Folk Beliefs

Countering the bad luck of a black cat

My informant is from Lipitsk, Russia. She moved to the United States for graduate studies, and is a graduate student at USC at the age of 33. I collected many superstitions from my informant, and also wedding traditions, using her own wedding as an example. This collection is a counteraction of the bad luck of seeing a black cat. You must spit three times and knock on wood to reverse the bad luck of the black cat.

Continuing the woman with buckets story:

Me: Is there a way to counteract or undo this? [the bucket story]

Informant: with the woman and the buckets no, but with the cat, you got to spit 3 times and then knock on wood 3 times [informant demonstrates]. Sometimes people cross themselves so there is this weird blend in Russia of the Orthodox religion so Christian Russian orthodox and Pagan traditions. So we’re mixed of boths because on the one hand we got the.. so when you see the superstitions they are technically pagan. So they come to this pagan, prior to Christ. Because there shouldn’t really be Christian traditions. But then they counteract the tradition of the black cat they cross themselves. So they are using the Christian way to counteract the pagan belief. So in the Russian mind, both of the m coexist.

It was interesting to see that the black cat comes up in other cultures besides our own. A black cat seems to be the universal symbol of bad luck. Additionally, in the United States people knock on wood to reverse bad luck, just as in this Russian folk belief. The spitting, however, is something that is not commonly accepted in the United States. The idea of spitting could be seen as a way to get the bad luck out of your system. The comment on the fact that the Church who does not allow superstitions,  yet crossing is used as a way to counteract them, shows how the two religions are mixed in with the folk beliefs.