USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘table manners’
Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pass the Salt Superstition

Main Piece:

“It is bad luck to hand someone the salt without setting it down on the table first to break the connection.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 47-year-old female. She says she first heard this superstition when she was having dinner with a couple of friends.  They were enjoying dinner when one of the ladies asked for the salt.  The person closest to the salt picked up the salt shaker and handed it to the person who had asked for the salt. The lady who had asked for the salt was reluctant to take the salt from the other person’s hand.  She then asked if it could be set down at the table because she did not want to take the salt shaker from the other person’s hand. The lady who had passed the salt asked why she had to set it down. The other lady responded that it was bad luck to pass the salt from one hand to another without setting it down first. My informant says she has since adopted the superstition claiming there is no harm in following the tradition and likes to think she is avoiding bad luck. I asked my informant where she thinks this superstition began, to this she responded she is unsure, but she thought it had something to do with the Jewish faith because the people she has encountered that strictly follow this superstition are Jewish.

I had heard this superstition before but was curious to know where it originates from and why this is the case. In looking into this superstition I found countless of other superstitions, beliefs, and traditions about salt. Such as the bad luck implied with spilling the slat on the table, and if one does so then they must immediately pick up a pinch of the salt and throw it over their left shoulder. It is also believed salt is a protector and would keep away evil spirits. To keep an unwanted visitors away some believed that if one sprinkles salt at the door right after they leave then sweep it up and burn it they will not return. I also discovered a belief in Buddhist tradition making it common to throw salt over your shoulder when returning home or after a funeral to keep the evil spirits away.

After finding so many beliefs about salt I looked into those related particularly just to the Jewish faith following my informant’s intuition this was a Jewish belief. To my surprise, there were also other Jewish superstitions related to salt. These included placing pockets of salt in the corners of a room or the pockets of clothing to drive evils away(, and throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilled the salt. The likely reason for so many salt superstitions and beliefs is likely due to the value of salt in the Middle Ages. Salt was extremely rare and expensive therefore the thought of spilling it would be unspeakable; similarly to spilling a bag of miniature diamonds in current day standards(something of very high value). In Judaism salt seems to have positive connotations. It is customary to sprinkle it over the challah(ceremonial Jewish bread) and is used as a preserver making what it touches last forever, elevating its status (

I found it very difficult to find any information about the passing of the salt specifically. The most common salt superstition I found was about spilling the salt. I can’t seem to recall where I heard this but remember someone mentioning passing the salt being a taboo due to the high value of salt. Therefore setting the salt down before the other person picks it back up acts as breaking the connection between the holder of the salt and the person who is about to hold it. Therefore, if anyone spills the salt it will be clear whose fault it was. Whoever picks the salt back up is now responsible for the salt. This eliminates any debate or misplacing of fault if the salt is spilled.

“SPILLING SALT.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1876-1904), vol. XI, no. 4, 04, 1881, pp. 413. ProQuest,

Folk Beliefs

A Grave of Rice

It’s bad luck to stick chopsticks into a bowl of rice, burying the tip. Supposedly this is because the chopsticks resemble the headstone placed on a grave, and reminders death are extremely inauspicious in Chinese society.

The correct way to set a table, and to place chopsticks on a bowl of rice, is to lay them across the rim of the bowl with the tip pointing toward the center of the table. This is because it is also rude to point the tip at anyone sitting at the table, but usually the people across the table are too far away for the sign to take effect.

I was made aware of this taboo when I stuck a pair of chopsticks into a bowl of rice when I was young, and JL, my mother, caught me in the act. I was setting the table for my family at the age of 8, and was allowed to begin eating first. I stuck the chopsticks in the rice to see if it would stay secure, and my mother caught me before anyone else could see, and she said it would have been very rude for my grandparents to see, and that they would have been a lot harder on me than she was.

She had actually found out about the taboo the same way when she was a child. This is a fairly obscure taboo in Chinese dining etiquette, so most people don’t find out about it until they’ve broken it once. When etiquette is broken in a public setting, it is also rude to mention the offense except in private, between two parties who trust each other, usually parents to children.

Folk speech

“He Worked for The Queen”- Setting the table

“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.



“M: My dad did this thing to make me set the table when I was little, I always hated putting the table together but he would always tell me that ‘he worked for the Queen’ so anytime I would challenge him, he’d just tell me that. He told he he’d ‘put out her candles’ and ‘set her tables’, so I would put out candles and set out tables correctly, because he knew how to do it correctly when he told me too.

Me: How long did he use that one for?

M: Until I moved out, it started out as a way to get me to do it, than he’d just use it when I got older to basically tell me to ‘just set the table how he wanted’ ”



The phrase seemed to be used as a short way for “M”s father to tell him he knew how to set the table, and as pointed out, originally as a way to motivate him to set it. As the Queen is an authority on proper etiquette, the phrase is simply an appeal to authority to get “M” to set the table.