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"Neither Down nor Feathers":

A friendly e-mail I saw wishing that Alan Gura — the lawyer arguing D.C. v. Heller on Heller's side — "break a leg" reminded me of a similar Russian phrase, which my family always used to wish me luck: "Ни пуха, ни пера," pronounced "Nee pookha, nee piera," which literally means "Neither down nor feathers."

The explanation I heard was that it was considered bad luck to wish for good luck, so you'd wish for bad luck instead; and when a hunter went hunting for fowl, back luck would be if he came back with no birds (hence the absence of down and feathers). I've also seen the claim that hunters used "pookh" to refer to fur rather than down, so that the hunter would get a wish that he come back with neither mammals nor birds, a plausible explanation but not one my grandmother told me.

The response was also a formula: "К чёрту," which literally means "to the devil," which is to say "go to hell." So, Alan, Ни пуха, ни пера.

Anderson (mail):
Ah yes, "to the devil," that "wine-dark sea" of Constance Garnett translations from the Russian.
3.17.2008 6:47pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):

so you'd wish for bad luck instead


this is illustrated in certain words in the aryan languages, taboo words- hunting a bear for example- "bear" is based in the meaning "brown", the meaning used by Northern European hunters: don't call it by it's real name (based as in "ursa") and you won't foul up your luck; or, in the same case as a bear, you won't conjure up an animal that can eat you. The words "honey" and "bee" are in the same classification, IIRC.

Your post put me to mind of, "Neither fish nor fowl", and, "Not hide nor hair".
3.17.2008 7:27pm
alias:
Silly gods and woodland spirits... reverse psychology gets 'em every time.
3.17.2008 7:31pm
ys:
An alternative response to the "feathers" wish, although not the one I favor, goes roughly: "We just spit!", i.e., we don't give a damn. There does not seem to be a ritual response to the "leg" wish, but then there are apparently multiple theories of its derivation not all involving the contrarian case. There is also a claim that with time this wish itself became too obviously good and therefore bad luck.

As to bears, they did inspire enough fear and respect to cut a swath through the names of Russian presidents. The incoming one's last name is the standard "bear" word (as pointed out in an earlier thread) which is a clear euphemism ("honey maven"), but a nickname of the last Soviet one, Gorbachev, while considered a kiddy word (misha/mishka = teddy bear), was in fact an erlier word probably fallen into taboo. The Lithuanian "meškos" is presumably derived from "miškos" - forest [forest ruler?] and is itself a euphemism. Reminds me of PC nomenclature chains frequently discussed on this blog.
3.17.2008 8:03pm
iNonymous:
The Italians will suggest that you should be attacked by a wolf (lit. "in the mouth of the wolf"), to which the proper response is "Kill the wolf!"
3.17.2008 8:12pm
Bravo:
I'm an actor, and I think the phrase "break a leg" has become so establishment that I've stopped saying it to other actors. Only high school theatre people and non-actors such as lawyers still use this phrase.
3.17.2008 8:13pm
Bravo:
Although, "Hey dude, full house tonight. Neither down nor feathers!" doesn't sound too great, either.
3.17.2008 8:14pm
ys:

Although, "Hey dude, full house tonight. Neither down nor feathers!" doesn't sound too great, either.

It's the response "to hell with it" which has to be delievered with lots of feeling that really does the trick. As a trained professional, I am sure you can hack it.
3.17.2008 8:22pm
LM (mail):
More of these, please. My Russian girlfriend gets such pleasure ridiculing my pronunciation.
3.17.2008 8:45pm
RainerK:
Interesting. The German eqivalent is much more friendly: "Hals- und Beinbruch", "break the neck and the leg".
I don't know of any formal response besides a faint grin.
According to a respected German dictionary its origin is in the Hebrew. See here.
My question is: Are these kinds of wishes exclusive to Western culture or do they exist in other cultures as well. Is there a common origin?
3.17.2008 10:43pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):

My question is: Are these kinds of wishes exclusive to Western culture or do they exist in other cultures as well. Is there a common origin?


I'm reminded of a story from Japan involving a samurai and a convict. The samurai tells the convict that today, he will test the sharpness of his sword by cleaving the convict in two from his head to his crotch, to which the convict replies, "If I had known that, I would have had gravel for breakfast."

Irony, cynicism, black humor, I believe, are universal.
3.17.2008 11:13pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"I'm an actor, and I think the phrase "break a leg" has become so establishment that I've stopped saying it to other actors. Only high school theatre people and non-actors such as lawyers still use this phrase."

True--"Have a good show" is an acceptable alternative, I've found. But as showbiz superstitions go, wishing an actor "good luck" is still pretty much considered an invitation to disaster. :-)
3.18.2008 1:49am
Tony Tutins (mail):
Following up on GWB's comment: German hunters have a whole separate vocabulary, of some 5,000 words if I remember correctly. Hunting itself is not Jagd but Weidwerk.
3.18.2008 2:31am
RainerK:
Tony Tutins,

Waidwerk is not the same as hunting, rather a large part of it. Among other aspects it consists of providing habitat for just enough animals to sustain them thus also protecting the habitat, and of ensuring that the herd stays healthy. Waidwerk's origin lies in the feudal right of the hunt. Today hunting is more democratic, but to be a hunter one has to to get some training in Waidwerk.
3.18.2008 8:57am
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
What does "Waidwerk/Weidwerk" translate to in english? I ran a Babelfish translation and got "feasting work" for "Weidwerk", and no translation for "Waidwerk".

Thanks.

How much more democratic, actually, is Euro/German hunting now? I know it was/is (?) a basically aristocratic pursuit.
3.18.2008 10:21am
ys:

What does "Waidwerk/Weidwerk" translate to in english? I ran a Babelfish translation and got "feasting work" for "Weidwerk", and no translation for "Waidwerk".

Going through the German Wikipedia it simply redirects to "Jagd" as just an alternative word for hunt. It's used on that page as part of complex words describing hunt-related items. If it were "Weide" - pasture - it might make some sense as "fieldwork" but apparently it isn't.


The German eqivalent is much more friendly: "Hals- und Beinbruch", "break the neck and the leg".
I don't know of any formal response besides a faint grin.
According to a respected German dictionary its origin is in the Hebrew. See here.

This is fascinating (the derivation from "hazlicha uvracha" by way of Yiddish). Frankly, with all due respect to the source I find it not very plausible. I would think that Yiddish speakers simply connected the already existing German and Hebrew expressions or it may even be a latter day urban legend. The existence of the English leg-breaking equivalent adds extra doubt.
3.18.2008 12:26pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
Mr. Volokh,

You mention how to prounounce the initial statement, but not the go-to-hell response. I can't pronounce those funny symbols. Help?
3.18.2008 1:28pm
ys:

You mention how to prounounce the initial statement, but not the go-to-hell response. I can't pronounce those funny symbols. Help?

Standing in vor EV, it goes roughly like this: "k chortoo". The emphasis is on the first syllable and you definitely need to pronounce the "r" (preferably in a hard Spanish way). Happy swearing!
3.18.2008 2:10pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
I've heard race car drivers wish each other "Crash and Burn".
3.18.2008 7:43pm
LM (mail):
I've been instructed (with the typical Slavic gloating derision) that the emphases in the first comment are as follows:

Nee poo-kha, nee pier-a.
3.18.2008 8:20pm
Ian Maitland (mail):
RainerK et al.

"Hals- und Beinbruch"

Is this a case of reverse psychology? Or is there a more natural explanation? I had always assumed that "Gott huete euch vor..." was implied.
3.18.2008 8:29pm