Earlier this week, I found myself beginning each sentence of an email with an expression of hope: “I hope you’re well?”; “Hopefully, the situation will continue to improve…”; “Let’s hope travel is back on the agenda soon.”
All fine sentiments, of course, but hardly likely to win any prizes for variety. It made me think of all the other expressions I could use to convey hopefulness, and from where these originate.
So inspired, I decided to do a little research into Europe’s most optimistic turns of phrase, and was intrigued by what I discovered. We all need a little luck in our lives, so to find out how best to invoke it – traditions vary markedly from country to country – read on…
1) Fingers crossed
The gesture of crossing fingers is one of the most widely recognised hand symbols in the West, but less well known is how the custom began, or why we think interlocking two digits – and articulating it – might bring us luck.
There are two main theories, with the earliest stretching back to pre-Christian times. Apparently, it was an ancient European custom for two people to touch fingers and form the sign of the cross – this symbol of unity was thought to channel benign spirits who could help to safeguard one’s wishes until they came true.
Early Christians also made the gesture in twos – both to identify one another as fellow believers and to invoke the power of Christ’s crucifixion when persecuted. As the centuries ticked over, wish-makers gradually started crossing two of their own fingers, most often to solicit God’s support in warding off ill health.
Nowadays, we’re more likely to say it than do it, but we shouldn’t rely on words alone to bring us luck – a recent University of London study has found that the act of placing one finger over the other can confuse the way our brain processes pain signals, and thereby reduce the levels of discomfort felt – I’ll cross my fingers to that!
2) Die Daumen drücken
It might not roll off the tongue, but this expression is one worth trying to remember if you’re ever travelling through Germany – crossing fingers will get you nowhere here! Instead, the Germans prefer to curry favour by pressing both thumbs into the palms of their hands then folding around their fingers to create a fist.
Explanations vary – one theory is that this gesture was made by audiences at gladiator fights when they wanted the defeated contestant to live – but I particularly like the idea the thumb was once a symbol for a goblin, and by ‘capturing’ it between your other fingers, you are keeping your troubles under wraps.
3) Sekira mi je padla v med
Next up is this rather lovely Slovenian expression for an unexpected stroke of good luck, which, when translated word for word, means ‘my axe fell into the honey’. Legend tells of a woodsman felling trees and encountering a hollow trunk filled with sweet, golden honey; whether or not this is true, the Slovenians have never needed an excuse to extoll the virtues of apiculture. Slovenia is a nation of beekeepers, with the countryside adorned with brightly painted wooden beehives and an impressive five percent of the population actively engaged in the activity.
4) Tvi, tvi
Norway is quite unique in its approach to well-wishing – rather than sharing simple good-luck messages, well-intentioned Norwegians put a ‘friendly curse’ on each other by using the phrase ‘tvi, tvi’. The method behind the madness is that if you are already cursed, evil spirits are much less likely to take notice of you.
You’ll often hear the phrase used to wish someone a trouble-free journey or a successful performance – much in the same vein as ‘break a leg’.
5) In bocca al lupo
Well-wishing is a typically lively affair in Italy, where the only correct way to say 'good luck' is to use the popular phrase, ‘in bocca al lupo’, which translates into English as ‘in the wolf’s mouth’. There are two opposing schools of thought behind this: either the phrase could refer to the she-wolf who once suckled – and thus protected – Rome’s two founders, Romulus and Remus; or it originated from the hunting world, where it was used to express a wish not to be devoured. This latter theory is supported by the standard Italian reply when wished well: ‘crepi il lupo’ – ‘may the wolf die’.
Depending on which part of Italy you are visiting, there are further ways to secure your good fortune: in Rome, you can throw three coins into the Trevi Fountain – one to ensure your return, the second for love and the third for marriage; in Verona, touching the right breast of the statue of Juliet is said to be lucky; while in Venice, superstition dictates you should avoid walking between the two columns in Piazzetta di San Marco, as executions once took place here. Most important of all, however, is not – under any circumstances – to use the phrase ‘buona fortuna’ (literally, ‘good luck’) as this is considered very unlucky indeed!