Superstitions Among Nurses in the ICU (The “Q-Word”, Full Moons)

Informant Context:

Stella is a traveling ICU (intensive care unit) nurse who currently work in Atlanta, Georgia.


INTERVIEWER: You seemed really excited to talk about [laughs] superstitions.


INTERVIEWER: Do you have any particular ones you had in mind?

STELLA: Yeah like, nurses are really superstitious. Um… especially like, in the ICU. Um… so like, we call it like, “Saying the Q word”. Um, you can’t say like, “Oh, it’s—it’s been like, really *quiet* on the unit today”. ‘Cause then it’s going to suddenly be not quiet. Like, you jinxed us. Um… so like, people will like—freak out. Or if you… you can’t say like, “Oh… like, you know, Mr. Jones is doing like, so great today. I think he’s gonna like, be able to get transferred out.” Like, you can’t—if like… Or, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I feel like we’re really making progress.” [You know(?)], you can’t jinx things, you know? Um… like—you just have to say like, “Oh, like, these things are going well. Like, this is great, we’re making progress…” but you can’t be like, “Oh, I think by… I think like, we—we’re out of the woods.” ‘Cause then the patient’s gonna like, code. It’s just like, a superstitious thing. Or like, um… another thing is like, full moons. Like, people say that like, when it’s a full moon, like—patients like, go crazy. [It’s a (?)] thing that like, everyone believes.

Informant Commentary:

Stella went on to recall the first time she violated one of these superstitions, causing some nurses around her 2 become angry with her. This serves as a kind of “rite of passage”, in which a new member of the folk group becomes rapidly acquainted with a folk belief, such as a superstition. Stella also noted the community that these superstitions offer to nurses working in the ICU. When members of a group are mutually forbidden from doing or saying a particular action or word, deep meaning can be communicated even when the action or word remains undone or unsaid. In this way, silence itself acts as an offshoot of “tabooistic vocabulary”.


Stella jumped at the chance to talk about superstitions, insisting that nurses are “really superstitious”. This could be partially explained by the high intensity nature of the medical workplace. A very small error can have deadly consequences, so it follows naturally that this folk group has developed small, vernacular ways—even unscientific ones, in a highly scientific workplace—to avoid failure. In addition, the folk belief in full moons causing irrational behavior is a well-documented phenomenon in folklore studies, stretching as far back as the ancient Rome and earlier. A few medical journals have even published research challenging the correlation between full moons and hospitalizations.

For more information about the inquiry into full moons and their affect on hospitals, see the following (the first is emergency-room trauma, the second psychiatric):

Zargar, M., Khaji, A., Kaviani, A., Karbakhsh, M., Yunesian, M., & Abdollahi, M. (2004). The full moon and admission to emergency rooms. Indian journal of medical sciences58(5), 191–195.

Gupta, R., Nolan, D. R., Bux, D. A., & Schneeberger, A. R. (2019). Is it the moon? Effects of the lunar cycle on psychiatric admissions, discharges and length of stay. Swiss medical weekly149, w20070.