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The Weird World of British Superstitions

"Very superstitious, the writing's on the wall…" if you're a music fan, we'll leave you to work out the song and singer! Whether you believe in them or not, we Brits are well-known for our superstitions; in fact, over 70% of us admit it! One of the common superstitions is Friday the 13th which many believe is unlucky.

The Weird World of British Superstitions

Everybody will know at least two or three superstitions, even if they don't believe in them, but do you know where our superstitions originated? Let's give you a rundown of 13 British superstitions - lucky and unlucky - and where they came from.

Unlucky Friday 13th

Have you ever noticed that in some hotels, buildings or even train stations and airports, there isn't a room number 13 or a gate 13? That's because it is considered an unlucky number, particularly when it falls on a Friday. Triskaidekaphobia (it's even got its own official name!) is being fearful of the number 13 and is thought to be linked to Christianity - 13 people at the Last Supper; Judas was the 13th disciple to join the table. But the most ancient reference to 13 being an unlucky number comes from a 1760 BC Babylonian code of law - each law is numbered, but the 13th law is missing.

It's bad luck to walk under ladders

This superstition is based on folklore which suggests that the triangle shape formed when a ladder is lent against a wall - no, it's not dangerous - invokes the Holy Trinity. Therefore, to walk through the triangle is believed to be unholy. However, if you walk under a ladder accidentally, don't worry; walk back under the ladder, praying at the same time, and you'll reverse the bad luck.

Break a mirror, and you'll have seven years bad luck

There are three origins for this superstition - the Romans who thought that breaking a mirror during a reading predicted a death; or the Venetians who used folklore to protect their beautiful mirrors from being broken by servants; or the Victorians who covered up their mirrors when someone died as they believed it stopped the deceased’s soul from being trapped inside the mirror. Rather than bringing bad luck, security and parking mirrors will help keep you safe instead.

Putting up umbrellas indoors will cause bad fortune to rain on your family

This probably dates back to when umbrellas were invented in the 18th century. They were designed with a strong spring mechanism that made sure umbrellas sprung open in seconds, only for them to be misjudged by people and the umbrella tip damaging priceless items in the home or even injuring a person! However, the superstition itself springs from the belief that if you open up an umbrella indoors, you are upsetting the spirits in the home, and bad fortune will fall on your family. The moral of the story is, don't put umbrellas up indoors but in an umbrella stand.

It's bad luck to put new shoes on the table

Another based in folklore and has three origins - some people believe new (or any, for that matter) shoes on a table are a harbinger of death because families of dead miners would leave their boots on the table as a tribute. Another folk tale links shoes on the table with convicts hanging from the hangman's noose as the scraping of their boots on the wood platform was like a table. There is also a belief that shoes on a table can bring bad luck to a marriage or storms and, amazingly, can cause stuttering in actors. So don't tempt fate, keep your shoes tidied away on a sensible shoe rack.

Saluting magpies

For centuries it is believed that magpies bring an ill wind, which breeds the superstition that if you see a single magpie, you must salute it and ask how its wife is. Of course, more than one magpie invokes the rhyme... one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy...

Being pooped on by a bird is... good luck!

This superstition is considered unlucky by some but lucky by others; because it doesn't happen very often, maybe luck will come your way.

Blessing a sneeze to blow away an ill wind

We have to go back to Pope Gregory the Great and the 6th century for the origins of this superstition. There was an awful illness throughout Italy, and the main symptom was someone sneezing chronically, followed by death soon after. So, Pope Gregory encouraged those that were free of the illness to pray for others, ordering them to say 'God bless you' if they heard someone sneeze and 'God help me' if they were sneezing alone... that's eerily familiar!

Reverse the bad luck of spilled salt by throwing a pinch over your left shoulder

Despite popular belief that this superstition goes back to the Romans or is down to Judas Iscariot at The Last Supper, it actually dates to 3,500 BC. An ancient civilisation called the Sumerians reversed the bad luck invoked by spilled salt by throwing a pinch of salt over their left shoulder to blind the devil sitting there.

One thing you can be certain of is that spreading de-icing salt during cold, icy weather will help avoid skids and accidents and keep you safe.

A black cat crossing your path

Whether this is supposed to bring you bad luck or good luck depends on where you live in the world. In Britain (and Ireland, Germany and Japan), a black cat crossing your path is considered good luck. But in many other countries, it is believed a black cat crossing your path will bring you bad luck, and that’s because they have been linked with witchcraft since the 17th century.

Touching wood

This one might go back to Pagan times, but it is a good luck symbol. In those days, it was believed that the good spirits lived in the trees, and by 'knocking on wood' or 'touching wood', it would release the good spirits and, therefore, good fortune. Of course, there are plenty of other theories! Bring yourself all day luck by travelling around on our wood dollies!

Crossing on the stairs invokes bad luck

Many believe that crossing someone on the stairs will bring you bad luck. The origin is down to suggestions rather than anything else; some say it was before the stair bannister was invented, and crossing on the stairs could lead to one person falling off. Others refer to passages in the Bible where angels passed each other and misfortune fell on one. Alternatively, you could just use one way signs or a queue management traffic light system to avoid the problem.

Four-leaved clover brings good luck

We thought we'd end on a good luck note, the four-leaved clover. This superstition, however, isn't based on religion or folklore; this is because finding a four-leaf clover, a mutation of the common white clover, is so rare that if you do find one, it really is down to luck!

Help! A superstition came true!

Of course, accidents do happen in the workplace. Whether you believe a good, old British superstition or not, we can recommend our complete St John Ambulance-approved First Aid Kit and other supplies. Plus, if you do end up with a hazardous area, avoid any superstitious incidents by putting up a Danger: Hazardous Area A-board.

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Photograph of Debs

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Digital marketer, social media, content writer, musician, sloth-lover, tea-drinker.