Friday, 09 September 2022 19:00
Estonian Life No. 36 2021 - Vincent Teetsov
Global theatre traditions have taught us that explicitly wishing someone well before a performance is a sure-fire way to make that performance go terribly wrong. Instead, a suitable replacement is “break a leg.”
The Canadian arts publication Ludwig Van
states that this saying first appeared in Robert Wilson Lynd's article “A Defence of Superstition” in 1921. Lynd wrote of how wishing someone luck in horse racing might actually bring about the opposite result. Then there's the story of how British actor David Garrick continued to perform Shakespeare's Richard III
despite having fractured his leg, presumably setting the standard for a wholehearted, praiseworthy performance.
Boston Lyric Opera speaks of an equivalent phrase—“Toi, toi, toi”
— said by opera singers as “an [onomatopoeic] imitation of the sound of spitting, done to ward [off] a hex or evil spirits.” Spitting against a lit candle could also blow smoke in the direction of those said spirits.
In Italian, luck can be imparted by saying “in bocca al lupo”
(“in the mouth of the wolf”), and in Hungarian, “kéz- és lábtörést”
(“hand and foot fractures”).
When many cultures are breaking bones and fighting off demons, what is the Estonian solution? Stones!
The saying “kivi kotti”
(“a stone into [your] bag”) is Estonia's contribution to a slew of euphemisms and other word trickery used to bring people luck.
Asta and Katre Õim, formerly of the Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum (Estonian Literary Museum), explained that the idiom is something that was originally said to fishermen in Estonia when going out for a day of fishing, when the success of one's work was thought to be dependent on chance. If you went up to a fisherman on shore and said “Hey, I hope you catch lots of fish today”, there was enough reason to worry that somehow the fish in the water nearby would have heard what you just said, causing them to be extra vigilant and to avoid approaching any nets, boats, or bait.
Instead, saying “kivi kotti”
, thereby wishing them a day of stone catching, would make the fish complacent and bring about a successful day at sea. Wishing someone the opposite of what they want is meant to thwart bad luck.
In English, a proverbial “bag of rocks” is associated with a burden you are carrying. Rather than signifying a mediocre catch of the day, writers in self-help and pop psychology genres use it as an analogy for things that are weighing down on us: personal battles, vices, and shortcomings. As American actor John Bay said, “Everybody's got a sack of rocks.”
In sports, athletes sometimes run, hike, or blast through calisthenics with added weight, such as stones, put inside a backpack. While some argue that this causes bad form and puts excess strain on one's joints, others say it develops shoulder and core strength. Perhaps then, we should also start accepting “kivi kotti”
as a kind of compliment. If someone says it when they see you exercising, then one could interpret it as “you appear to be exercising with such ease that you could carry stones with you and not be affected by it.”
Then again, maybe those first seafaring uses of “kivi kotti”
were a curse, to cause an enemy to truly only come back with a bag full of stones, because they had been a little too lucky out at sea lately.
Estonians also have the vanasõna “nael kummi”
(“a nail in your tire”) at their disposal to say “good luck.” But regardless of how innocuous or menacing these phrases can be, they're indicative of the human tendency to be superstitious about the impact of words on the future.
Written by Vincent Teetsov