Etiquette & superstition: cutting

My old writing partner recently reminded me of an entry I had written in our now long-abandoned etiquette book project. “The cut direct!” he said. “Did you completely make that up or is that real?” I couldn’t remember. I knew the cut direct was a real thing, but could not recall what on earth I had written about it.

Well, I unearthed one of our rough drafts, and found that the cut direct entry includes this tip: “Remember to use proper headgear. The pink pearlized ‘chiaroscuro’ helmet has been in fashion over the last few years, but the authors have found it not to provide adequate protection of the hypothalamus.” So, yes; that entry was completely made up. The item below is not.

ETIQUETTE: A cut direct is the practice of refusing to acknowledge another person’s greeting. A person says hello to you or bows, usually in public, and you just stand there staring at them. This is obviously to be employed only when wishing to completely sever a relationship. This is not the same as pretending not to recognize someone. This is a straight-up stoneface. Use it sparingly.

Additionally: men may not cut ladies, unmarried ladies may not cut married ladies, and people may not cut other people on the street.

SUPERSTITION: If you have been cut, you can heal your wound by simply cleaning and polishing the implement that delivered the cut. Put it away in a safe place while you’re at it. Pliny says that if you have cut someone else and you feel bad about it, spit into the hand you used to injure the person. They will start to feel better immediately.

Photo by Martin Deutsch on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: licking

Lick machine

Not too long ago, I got bitten on the leg while babysitting a four-year-old. I yelped pretty loudly in response; this four-year-old had never previously bitten me or anybody else that I had noticed. Before I could even ask him what that had been about, he said, “Sorry. I just meant to lick your knee.” Okay, then.

ETIQUETTE: Licking one’s plate or fingers is not acceptable in most cultures. There are some apocryphal tales online about finger licking being a sign of respect to the cook in “certain regions in India” or “some areas of Ethiopia” or “Texas when you’re eating ribs,” but it seems a rather chancy proposition to undertake this custom without observing a respected member of the community doing it first.

If you find yourself absolutely needing to lick your fingers, please do it at the end of the meal and not in the midst of eating – particularly if you are eating with your hands and taking food from a communal plate. Lick the middle finger first, then the index finger, and lastly the thumb. You may also wish to quote the prophet Mohammed: “You do not know in what part of the food the blessing lies.” 

SUPERSTITION: If a newborn baby has a birthmark on his head, the mother merely needs to lick the birthmark for several days in succession if she wishes it to disappear.

Photo by Max Braun on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: surprises

A lot of people hate surprises. I’m not sure why. The word does come from Latin and Old French words meaning “unexpected seizure,” so maybe that’s it.

ETIQUETTE: You know how certain old people are always yammering on about how young people today are uncivilized monsters with no sense of decorum? If you encounter one of these old people, just shoot back with a, “Yeah, well look at you people with your surprise parties you used to have.” Seriously. According to the 1951 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, the following is a perfectly acceptable way to throw a surprise party: “… John and Mary Neighbor are giving a dinner at home…. Meet in a house nearby and then troop in a procession, with quite possibly a band leading the way, to storm the house.” You just barge in on a small dinner party. With a marching band. Awesome, in a monstrously uncivilized way. You know, maybe you should just give a surprise party like this for the yammering old person. It will probably stop their yammering one way or another.

SUPERSTITION: Seeing a cart full of straw is an indicator of a nice surprise to come, as is rolling the number “3” on a die or drawing a “9” card. If a pregnant woman is startled by a rabbit, she will give birth to a child with a harelip.

Photo by L P on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: May Day

Did you know that the distress call “mayday” comes from the French phrase “venez m’aider,” or “come to my aid”? I didn’t know that until today. My high school French teacher Madame Goff always told us we were supposed to say, “Au secours!” if we needed help in an emergency. That’s about all I remember her teaching us besides, “Taissez-vous!” I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Madame Goff.

ETIQUETTE: The first of May is known in Gaelic and Pagan cultures as the Cross-Quarter Day of Beltane; it’s a celebration of the greening of the earth. In honor of the greening of the earth, you should light a big bonfire. If you’re in an area where a big bonfire will only create a blackening of the earth rather than a greening of the earth, maybe you should forget about Beltane and think about the first of May as May Day instead.

One of the most enduring traditions of May Day is the practice of dancing around the maypole. Folklorists argue about whether the maypole is a phallic potency symbol or merely a symbol of more general life and growth, but we’re not going to discuss that now. Let’s just get into the proper behavior around that symbol.

The dancers should arrange themselves boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle around the maypole, with each dancer holding a ribbon that is attached on the other end to the top of the maypole. One gender positions itself to revolve around the maypole clockwise, and the other gender faces counter-clockwise. For my purposes here, I’m going to say the boys are clockwise and the girls are counter-clockwise, but I cannot find any information indicating that it matters either way. The boys and girls then circle around, weaving in and out of each other in a regular pattern. In-out-in-out-in-out. There is going to have to be a bit of cooperation to get this rhythm, as you don’t want the dancers both going out at the same time and bonking each other in the head or getting all tangled up. Maybe it’s a good idea to agree that the boys start on the outside and the girls start on the inside. Again, if you want to start the girls on the outside and the boys on the inside, I can find no evidence that this is improper. You just have to choose one way or another to get this damned thing done in a halfway decent manner.

If all this weaving business is just too complicated for the dancers at hand, just announce that it is time for traditional Swedish maypole dancing; at that point, all the dancers need to do is pretend they’re frogs or that they’re doing the laundry.

SUPERSTITION: It’s May Day at the dairy farm, people. What are you doing dancing around that maypole like a bunch of damned fools? We have work to do.

Harris, did you singe the cattle with the straw last night to keep away the evil spirits? Good job, Harris.

Eburscon, go out to the singed cattle and kill any rabbits that you might see. As we all know, those rabbits are really witches trying to get at the milk. Put some pieces of rowan on the door of the barn as well. Those darn witches.

Lavinia, let’s hurry it up with getting those cow’s tail hairs into the boiling herbs you gathered this morning. All this rabbit-killing is for naught if we don’t have good butter at the end. Remember Betty Botter and all her problems, Lavinia. And you know what? Get some of that rowan and put it around the handle of the butter churn to keep the witches from stealing all our good butter once you’re done.

What’s that, Myfanwy? You have some hawthorn blossoms for us? Well, aren’t you a dear? I know I’m not supposed to give away milk on May Day, but you deserve a bit of cream for that hawthorn there.

Okay, everybody’s done? Well then, I guess you can go dance around that old maypole then. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.

Original photographer unknown; image uploaded to Flickr by Paul Townsend

Etiquette & superstition: stuff on the moon

Good gravy. You’re an etiquette and superstition blogger who steps away from her computer for a week, and what happens? A Blood Moon happens. A Paschal Full Pink Blood Moon. Benny and I got into Denver on the second and less hectic leg of our trip late last night, and I have to say that seeing the full moon turn red while driving past the giant blue devil horse with glowing red eyes was rather dramatic.

ETIQUETTE: All that junk that the US and the USSR left on the moon is not junk; it is classified as “artifacts.” If you go to the moon, you should not try to clean up Neil Armstrong’s footprint or Alan Shepard’s golf ball or even any urine bags you might come across. Artifacts. Above all, do not go messing around where any of the Apollo or Lunokhod retroreflectors are located. There’s a speed limit on the moon so you don’t go kicking up space dust and ruining everything. Remember – only the first guys on the moon were allowed to ruin everything. Check with NASA about specific rules.

SUPERSTITION: Avoid travel when there is blood on the moon, as it portends danger or death. There are three references in the Bible to the moon turning to blood before Judgment Day, but I wouldn’t worry about it unless the sun also turns the color of a sackcloth made of goat hair and a big earthquake comes along. So far, so good.

Etiquette & superstition: flatulence

It’s okay, Bill. Girls only fart flowers.

ETIQUETTE: You will fart in front of somebody else during your lifetime. You will. There are those who say that you typically have 30 seconds’ warning before you need to pass gas, and that is ample time to excuse yourself to a more private spot, but there are instances where excusing yourself is an obtrusive act in itself which will result in the necessity of an explanation, and then where are you? Back acknowledging your fart, that’s where you are. Ignore it. Move on. If everybody in a yoga class said, “Excuse me,” every time he or she farted, nobody would be able to hear the teacher. Even Miss Manners says you should not acknowledge a fart regardless of whether you are the audience or the performer, and she doesn’t even do yoga.

SUPERSTITION: If you are among indigenous people in Ecuador and you fart, you are in for some serious trouble. It is believed that your soul leaves your body when you fart, and unlike Miss Manners, Ecuadorians feel it is important to draw attention to whomever has done the farting. Usually what happens is someone yells, “Uianza!” three times and claps the farter on the back, and everybody in the vicinity understands that the farter now has eight days to prepare a post-hunting expedition feast, presumably to gain his soul back. The alternative to the feast is for the flatulence producer to provide the person who hit him on the back with three jugs of beer. It seems to me that this beer-giving would result in some gas-passing on the part of the recipient, and then somebody else would get three jugs of beer, and so on, and so forth.

In a different hemisphere, farting is the solution rather than the cause of your problems. Okinawans believe that sleeplessness is caused by certain tree sprites called Kijimuna sitting on you while you lie in bed. These Kijimuna will go away if you fart.

Etiquette & superstition: corn

There are a few theories about the origin of the word “corny.” One story goes that mail-order seed catalogs in the early 20th century included dumb jokes and hokey stories amongst the listings for corn prices. Another opinion is that it was a pejorative for unsophisticated country folk, a la “cornfed hayseeds”; this one continues that the country bumpkin would get especially mawkish after a bit of corn liquor. The most illogical postulation I found tried to pin it on the people of Cornwall, who seem to have a reputation for being different. I’d never heard of this anti-Cornish sentiment before, so it was rather alarming to come across it. However, since “corny” doesn’t mean strange or different, this theory is busted. Nice try, Cornwall haters.

ETIQUETTE: The proper eating of corn on the cob seems to have been an obsession with etiquette experts once upon a time. Flip through any chapter on table manners in an etiquette book written before 1970, and you’ll find corn on the cob. I imagine that the readers of these books during this period were delicate city gentlewomen who needed to be talked through a procedure that involved eating with one’s fingers. Fried chicken is another favorite topic of this time.

Anyway, the basic idea for corn consumption is to go forth bravely without being a complete savage. Do not butter and season the entire cob at one time so that butter and mayonnaise and your little cheesy bits are dripping all over the place; just butter a few rows at a time. Take hold firmly by both ends of the cob if no corncob holders have been provided, and eat away (in her etiquette book from the ’60s, Eleanor Roosevelt actually directs the eater to “gnaw it,” and as soon as I read that I couldn’t get the picture of old Eleanor Roosevelt gnawing away at a corncob out of my head for some time). Don’t get all fussy with cutting the kernels off the cob unless your dental situation merits it.

SUPERSTITION: When you harvest corn, the spirit that lives within the crop loses its house. If you’re nice and make a temporary home for it, you’ll have a good harvest next year. Make a corn dolly out of the last few stalks of corn and hang it up in the kitchen. The “dolly” is often not actually a doll figure, but a bell, spiral, horseshoe or lantern shape (and it’s not always made of corn; sometimes rye, wheat, or oats are used). In parts of Germany, the dolly actually is formed as a doll, dressed in women’s clothing and called the Corn Mother. The Corn Mother is thrown into the barn for the mice to eat so they’ll leave the rest of the harvest alone. Gnaw the Corn Mother, mice. Go ahead.

Photo by _cheryl on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: roses

Roses are red, violets are blue. Or wait… aren’t violets violet?

ETIQUETTE: A gift of red roses for Valentine’s Day. I don’t know; it’s traditional, but so unimaginative. If I got red roses for Valentine’s Day, I’d be a little suspicious. Try some orange roses if you want to convey passion and desire, lavender roses to mean love at first sight, or blue roses if you want the recipient to understand you find them to be an unattainable mystery… or a University of Michigan fan or something if you get the roses at FTD. FTD, why are you doing that to your roses? That’s terrible. Please stop doing that.

SUPERSTITION: So many rose superstitions. Let’s just grab a few.

  • Scattered red rose petals are not a sexy, romantic gesture; they are an omen of evil to come. Also cheesy.
  • If you’re going to give primroses to a farmer, make sure you give him a big bunch. If you don’t, his ducks and chickens are all going to die.
  • Are you a widow being haunted by the ghost of her husband, and you just want him to go away already? Walk through a path of rose bushes four times; he will get stuck on a thorn and won’t be able to follow you any more.
Photo by fabiux via Flickr

A knight and a temple

Two people responsible for bringing a lot of light into the world died yesterday – Shirley Temple Black and Leonard Knight. Shirley Temple holds a place of high esteem here at Fancy Notions not only for her singing and dancing talents, but also for her stint in the ’70s as the US Chief of Protocol (a/k/a The Big Boss of Etiquette). Leonard Knight holds a place of high esteem here for his love of the world and his beautiful and strange creation that sprang from that love, Salvation Mountain. Nice work, you two.

You might be sick of hearing “Animal Crackers” or “Good Ship Lollipop” right about now, so why don’t you take a listen to the arguably superior “At the Codfish Ball”? If you want, you can take a virtual tour of Salvation Mountain while you do so.

Curb that impulse

I like this cartoon, even though I don’t like the message. Boys should not hoot at girls. It doesn’t even work. To wit:

(From Hapa Girl: A Memoir) “Some of the boys hoot, cupping their hands around their mouths. They hoot to see how the girls will react: will they like it? This sound like a monkey’s mating call? A few girls giggle. A few more boys hoot. The girls decide, no, they don’t like it, and turn away. The boys stop hooting.”

Thanks for finding this video, Creekbird! You’re good at lots of things.

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