Tag Archives: Jinx

Folk Belief: On Money and Hands


Informant E is a 21 year old USC student studying American Studies and Ethnicity. She identifies as Chicana and and was born and raised in the greater Los Angeles area. E is a junior at the university and is the interviewer’s roommate.


E: “So if my right hand – the palm of my right hand – is itchy, I put it in my pocket, because it means I’m gonna get money. If the left palm/hand is itchy, that means I owe someone money. So I have to scratch it.”

Interviewer: “Did you learn this from someone?”

E: “My family.”

A friend, also in the room: “If you scratch it does it mean that you don’t owe them money?”

E: “Like I’m not gonna get – it could mean, like, ‘Oh I have to pay rent soon,’ so it’ll start itching. Or I have to go pay someone back because they took me out to go eat. So then that means I have to get them back.” “If I scratch my hand, I don’t have to pay them back. Sometimes.”

Interviewer: “So who taught you this?”

E: “My grandma and then my grandma taught my mom and then me.”


E’s folk belief is a kind of self-soothing ritual and, though a bit more complicated, I would compare it easily to knocking on wood or throwing salt over one’s shoulder. It’s clearly been passed down to her as familial knowledge. I did search for more information online and found that the superstition originates in the Caribbean which, although not part of Latin America, is close to it, and the belief itself seems to have spread easily throughout the world. I find it interesting that this belief has to do with hands, as I feel there’s a through-line in history. Bartering relied heavily on hands, and handshakes or palms are often symbols of such agreements. Trade and bartering then became money or payment, which is still then associated with hands, and is what I would argue led to this superstition. In general, money obviously is a good thing to have and a bad thing to lose, so this self-soothing ritual can be comforting and seems so common because of that universal truth about the value of money. The scratching part of this belief makes it a ritual or a form of jinx (re: like knocking on wood) in my opinion, as the participant is doing something tangible, as if to put the belief into effect.

Knock on Wood


The informant is a freshman at USC from Barrington, Illinois. During a call, I recorded an interview with them about rituals, superstitions, and festivals. When asked if they perform any superstitions, this is what they said. Important context to know is that their childhood home is a small ranch that has horses and other animals. They often go riding along trails near their home.


PL: The biggest superstition slash ritual that I practice is knocking on wood. So whenever I say a thing that I–Okay, so like, scenario, potential scenario, I’m on a trail ride. I ride horses, and I’m with like a parent, with my mother, and we’re riding and I’m like, wow, it’s such a sunny day. Or like, I’ll say knock on wood because I don’t want to incur like, the bad luck of like, it’s gonna start raining because I immediately noticed that it was a sunny day or like it’s raining. And I’ll be like, I’ll notice it stopped raining. And if–if I say, “Oh, wow, it finally let up” or something like that, I will say “Knock on wood” and I will literally turn my horse to the side of the trail, find a–find a tree, knock on it, and continue.

PL: In the same way, I will say knock on wood and find a piece of wood to knock on. If I say like, “Hope you don’t die” or things like that were, like, I say a thing, but I don’t want it to happen. Or I say a thing and I don’t want the opposite to happen. And I will say, “Knock on wood,” and then I will find the nearest piece of wood and take my hand and put my knuckles against it a couple times in a knock. Yeah.


“Knock on Wood” is a very common superstition in the United States, so it was not surprising to hear that this informant practiced this superstition. As the informant describes, the act of knocking on wood is meant to solidify a blessing or ensure that the opposite of a desired result does not happen. In this way, I feel that the practice is linked to the idea of a “jinx”–the idea being that if you vocalize a desired result, the opposite may happen as a direct result of that vocalization. “Knocking on wood” is thus intended to negate the effects of this jinx.

Superstition: Knock on Wood


“Oh yeah, I always knock on wood whenever someone says they’ve never had something bad happen to them. It’s just a little precaution, you know? Like, I don’t want to jinx anything by tempting fate. Plus, it’s a habit that I’ve had for so long that it’s just become second nature at this point.”


My informant, who is white and from San Francisco, picked this superstition up from his parents as a child, and is a reluctant believer in it today. He interprets it as a method of negating the potential bad luck that could come with a jinx. 


My informant’s superstition is an example of conversion superstition, as he takes action to negate a curse. Essentially, the jinx, for example something like “I have never broken a bone” curses an individual to break a bone, but knocking on wood can negate that outcome. The curse aspect of this superstition shares some similarities with the Evil Eye, where direct compliments actually function as curses, similar to how my informant’s statements of positive wellbeing can doom one to negative outcomes. This belief could be a derivative of historical pagan beliefs in the sacredness of trees and forests, where knocking on wood provided a method through which people could communicate with deities. 

My informant’s reluctance in believing this superstition suggests his desire to depart from his commitment to the belief, perhaps a symptom of his maturing process. This in turn suggests that he views this superstition as a child’s belief. However, one might add that this superstition provides a method by which one can keep his or her self-positive thoughts in check and avoid resting on laurels or boasting. 



Informant: So my grandma does this a lot and I actually just asked her for clarification about it, but… A lot of the time when I was younger, and especially now, I’ll like wake up and the house will smell like… Smoke… It smells like burnt popcorn, almost? And it’s not like a great smell. And I always thought, like, “Oh, like, my grandma put something in the toaster-oven for too long.” But it turns out it’s an intentional thing. So what she’s doing is… There’s this thing called Esphand… And it’s almost like… Black sand, it looks like? It almost looks like little seeds. I’m not sure what it actually is. It’s not edible. But… Something that Persians do––particularly Persian mothers or grandmothers––is they will put it, you know, in like a pan on the stove, and they’ll toast it and it burns and it smokes, and it smokes very quickly. And it fills the house with that like burnt popcorn aroma… And they’ll like get a towel or something and sort of wave it through the air so it like fills the house… Um… Yeah, and that smoke is supposed to cleanse the air. Um… And it alleviates any bad luck. It’s not that it gives you good luck, but it just prevents bad things from happening, sort of. And the Esphand is, it’s not like only confined to the home? Uh… It’s also… It can be incorporated into weddings? It’s not really done these days, but something they would do in the past is… They would kind of sprinkle the Esphand on the ground before the bride as she was walking. And as she was walking down the aisle, uh, they would kind of… Actually burn it in front of her as she was walking. So someone was leading, walking in front of her, and she would walk through the smoke… So it was kind of like… Like cleansing her on her way. So she’s entering into this marriage cleansed of bad luck.


Informant: My grandma, she would usually do it if my sister and I weren’t home, ‘cause she knew it––we’d always complain about it… And actually when I was at college, she’d do it, like, she would do it for me, right? Like to… Cleanse my spirit from afar. So that was an interesting kind of practice… And it’s not really about the Esphand… It’s what you do with the Esphand. It’s the ritual…  But it’s not like––it’s not an everyday type of thing. It’s only if she’s like––if she’s nervous, she’ll do it. It’s like to cleanse bad luck. So like, if the family is preparing for something and she, uh, doesn’t like want anything to go wrong… Like at the beginning of the pandemic it was a little bit more common… Like she was doing it more than she ever had before, I think. Or at least, I noticed it more. But like, when I was in high school, I hardly knew it was a thing. Like sometimes I’d just come home and like, “Ugh, someone burned something,” you know? 


In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, Elliott Oring claims there is “difficulty [in] interpreting the meaning of symbolic acts in human behavior” (55). In order to give meaning to the act of burning Esphand, one must first be familiar with its ties to the evil eye. The lighting of Esphand is thought to ward off the evil eye. The evil eye is a contagious form of magic; if someone who has the evil eye engages with you, they may bring on bad luck or “jinx” you (jinxing stems from the concept that if you have a jinn attached to you, you bring on bad luck). For example, if a houseguest who has the evil eye compliments a child on their beauty, a mother or grandmother might burn Esphand to clear the air, concerned that the child has been met with an evil eye (i.e. been jinxed) and is thus at risk of their beauty being ruined. While burning Esphand is unique to Persian culture, the act of trying to reverse bad luck is shared across cultures. Similar actions include throwing salt over a shoulder or knocking on wood. These behaviors (performing an action to remove bad luck) can be referred to as a conversion superstitions. The existence of conversion superstitions suggests that humans have an underlying, psychological preoccupation with controlling luck and fate; if we are apprehensive that something will go wrong, it makes us feel better to perform a ritual or action that is meant to steer things in a more desirable, less unlucky direction. And these rituals or actions only have meaning through their association with reversing bad luck.


Source cited above:

Oring, Elliott. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: an Introduction. Utah State University Press, 1986. 

Further reading(s):

“Esfand & The Evil Eye.” My Persian Kitchen, 2016, www.mypersiankitchen.com/esfand-the-evil-eye/#:~:text=It%20is%20pretty%20safe%20to,curse%20on%20someone%20else’s%20behalf.

Saba Soomekh. “Iranian Jewish Women: Domesticating Religion and Appropriating Zoroastrian Religion in Ritual Life.” Nashim : a Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, vol. 18, no. 18, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 13–38, doi:10.2979/NAS.2009.-.18.13.

Pui Pui: Spitting the words off of your lips

Main Piece:

What does Pui Pui mean?

“It’s like ‘get the words off your lips,’ kind of a purification thing, but it’s also about spitting. It’s like when you don’t’ want to jinx something, like ‘I hope I start feeling better soon, pui pui pui.’ It’s so the evil eye… to get rid of the evil eye, and it’s an Ashkenazi Jewish thing. Plus there’s hand motion associated with it! You kinda flick your hands like you’re getting rid of something, though all of the old people point their hands instead. I guess it can be spelled ‘ptui ptui’ like spitting, but the real question is how is it spelled in the original Yiddish (laughs)?” 


The informant is my mother. She is was raised Conservative Jewish and has an Ashkenazi (Easter European) Jewish background. This information was collected during a family zoom call where we were checking in with each other.

Analysis: When explaining Pui Pui to people who have never heard of it before, I often call it the Jewish “Knock on wood.” My entire family uses it as a replacement to knocking on wood whenever we don’t want to jinx something. Most Jews I’ve met have never heard of this saying, and those who have heard of it have strong ties to Eastern Europe. The combination of the spitting sound and the flicking hand motion are reflective of sympathetic magic practices, and it’s as if miming spitting the words off of your lips will actually prevent them from having been spoken.