The coming of the New Year is a time when cultures around the world practice a variety of colorful customs intended to ensure a prosperous future. Here we take a look at some of those traditions and the vocabulary surrounding them.
Godspeed and Good Luck
The Middle English word for "good fortune" was spede, or speed. This is the same speed as in the expression Godspeed. The phrase originally meant "may God grant you good fortune" and has nothing to do with God helping one go really fast. Today, wishing someone "Godspeed" means to wish them a successful journey.
Luck, which came into English in the early 16th century, on the other hand, really embraces the concept of pure chance — it is a complete mystery how your luck will turn out. The word is a borrowing from Middle Dutch and arrived in English connected to gambling. The things people hold to be lucky vary widely, and the New Year is a time when these are considered especially important.
Hoppin' John and Skippin' Jenny
Hoppin' John is a traditional Southern dish that's customarily served on New Year's Eve in places like Georgia and the Carolinas. The belief is that eating this food will ensure good fortune, and each major ingredient corresponds to money. The black-eyed peas are like coins, the collard greens are like paper money and the cornbread that's served with the dish represents gold. In some variations of the traditional meal, a dime is hidden in the food and the lucky person who gets it is supposed to have a particularly prosperous year.
There are many theories as to where Hoppin' John gets its name. Most involve children or husbands so delighted by the aroma of the food that they come hoppin' to the kitchen table. Another linguistically interesting possibility is that Hoppin' John is an americanization of the Haitian name for black-eyed peas, which are known as pigeon peas, pois pigeons. With a little creative bending of the sounds, this becomes Hoppin' John.
It is considered especially lucky to eat Hoppin' John leftovers the next day, when they become known as Skippin' Jenny. Eating Skippin' Jenny is supposed to show that you have started the year off right, being mindful of stretching a meal and saving money.
The Twelve Grapes of Luck
In Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, it is considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. This custom is called la doce uvas de la suerte, "the twelve grapes of luck." The catch is that you have to eat the entire dozen before the bell stops tolling. The twelve grapes symbolize the calendar months of the coming year, so eating all of them in the allotted time means an entire year of luck. Whether it is taken seriously or merely considered a charming local custom, the tradition is very popular in Spain. Even people who don't hold other fanciful beliefs tend to eat the grapes, just in case.
You might say that the grape-eaters of the Spanish-speaking world are grasping at good luck. The English word grape comes from the French grape, a word derived from the Old French graper which meant "steal, grasp, pick with a hook." The word can be traced back to the Germanic root krappon for "bent hook" which also gives us English crampon, those long metal spikes that attach to shoes and help with traction on snow and ice.
Polka Dots for Luck
In the Philippines, circles are considered good luck at least partially because they look like coins. The popularity of the circle has led to the polka dot as the fashion statement of choice, especially around the New Year. Polka dot dresses and shirts are to be seen everywhere on New Year's Eve. The polka dot is named after the dance style that was popular when the pattern first was in vogue, but where did the word polka itself come from? English borrowed the word from French, but the best guess as to its ultimate origin is that it is a blending of two Czech words. Polka means "Polish woman" in Czech and pulka means "half", a reference, perhaps, to the quick half-steps involved in dances like the polka.
Whether or not you practice any of the quirky cutoms of the New Year, this is a time to reflect on what has passed and to anticipate what is to come. The traditions and their mere mention provide a sense of continuity from year to year and help give us a sense of where we've been and where we are going. So even if you don't wear a polka dot shirt while scarfing down a dozen grapes at the stroke of midnight, you can ring in the New Year by talking about these cherished customs.
Whatever your plans for the coming year, "Godspeed and good luck!"
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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