Sunday, October 01, 2006

jinx and snap

Suzannah e-mailed to ask about the rituals involved when two people say the same thing at the same time. In the US, the schoolyard tradition is to say jinx! (For a discussion of the etymology of the word see World Wide Words.) In general, a jinx is a kind of curse. After simultaneous speech, one tries to be the first to say jinx (or to jinx them, for it can be a verb too), after which the "jinxee" is "cursed" by not being allowed to speak. Wikipedia elaborates the rules as:
"Jinx" is also a term used when two people say the same thing at the same time and the person who says jinx first makes the other person not speak until somebody says his or her name. The only prevention for this state is to yell the word "buttercup" after the jinx. This can be countered by "Jinx no buttercups".
This shows up a limitation of Wikipedia--the rules here are undoubtedly the rules that the author has experienced, but there are plenty of other rules too, since regional variation is rife in children's games and playground activities. (So go now and add your own rules to Wikipedia!) In Suzannah's experience:
When I was in school, if two people said the same thing at the same time you hurried to say "jinx" first - whoever lost wasn't supposed to talk until someone said their name. A bystander could also say it, and both of the people involved would be caught. I learned from a friend who grew up in another area that "pinch poke you owe me a coke" was the answer to this situation, or sometimes just "jinx you owe me a coke". I saw in an old movie (and another friend said she'd seen it in person) where the two people stopped for a second in their conversation and linked pinkies when this happened, then kept going.
(I think we played with something like Suzannah's rule--but usually we just got bored with our friend not being able to talk so we'd unjinx them.) Over at The Law of the Playground there are some more versions. OED doesn't have this sense of jinx but does note that the word is 'orig. U.S.'.

Better Half says that he knows jinx from his days on a South London playground, where they said jinx and fainites. (Though BH remembered the word as "fainlights", making it difficult to look up. Some kind folks at the American Dialect Society set us straight on the spelling.) Fainites (and variations on it--OED lists fains, fains I, fainit...) gives the sayer immunity from jinxing or touching.

Off the playground in BrE, one is more likely to hear snap, which is, as the OED puts it, 'an exclamation used when two similar objects turn up or two similar events take place'. This doesn't have the cursing connotations of jinx and is used off the playground as well. For example, when playing Scrabble, if I announce my score and my opponent has the same score, she might say Snap! or if you reach for something at the same time as someone else, one of you could say it.

This use of snap comes from a card game of the same name, which is similar to the game I played as a child called slapjack--but there are many variations of this game (and other names for it) that are of varying similarity to snap. (Here are two--including one in which one actually slaps jacks.) Essentially, one splits a deck of cards between two people; both lay a card face up on the table and continue doing this, piling the cards on one another, until two cards match (e.g. two jacks). The first one to slap the pile and say (BrE) Snap!/(AmE-dialectal) Slapjack! gets to keep the pile (or in some versions not keep it--depending on whether the aim is to have all the cards or none of them). For young children, one can buy snap cards with pictures.

In my house, slapjack always ended in tears and accusations, and sometimes with being sent to one's room. The name snap sounds much more civili{s/z}ed. But is the game?

22 comments:

Suzannah said...

That's excellent, Lynne, thanks! My curiosity is so much more satisfied now. I didn't know there was such a thing as immunity from jinxing. And I like that snap can be used for other things, like your same score in scrabble example. I wish there were a word here for that kind of thing! The best we can do is "hey we're twins" but it wouldn't work in all the examples you gave.

dearieme said...

"moot": I don't understand when an American says that something is moot.

jas said...

In the midlands we used to say snap then link little fingers (pinkies) and make a wish.

ally said...

I don't think, from the sounds of it, that Snap is any more genteel a game than Slapjack! It usually ended up in low-to-medium levels of violence between me and my brothers when we were young. When 'snap' is used in other contexts (Scrabble scores or two people wearing the same jumper or whatever), it doesn't tend to come to blows, which is fortunate.

(Does AmE use 'moot' differently from BrE, then? I have heard it on US telly shows and it seems to have a pretty identical meaning, but maybe there's another sense.)

Ginger Yellow said...

My Illinois raised parents say "Jinx you owe me a Coke", whereas I've only ever heard "Snap" in Britain, where I grew up.

lynneguist said...

Yesterday in a meeting I said that I'd been doing my new job for a month and a day, and someone else said snap, meaning that he'd been doing his job for a month and a day too. That kind of usage you never get with jinx. Snap is more of a solidarity-builder.

Dearieme--if you'd like to request new topics, can I ask you to use my e-mail link? For organisational purposes, I'd like to keep the comments sections related to the topics of their entries as much as possible.

dearieme said...

Fair do's.

Howard said...

I think in Britain the saying of the same thing simultaneously as someone else is regarded as a lucky thing, not 'jinxed' at all. There is a little-finger linking, eye-closing and wish-making ritual associated with it, which I'll try to look up for you.

Julie said...

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murray said...

Linking pinkies I recall. It was the result of any two in a group saying the same thing at the same time. But our variation was that you mustn't say anything until you'd each said a poet's name. That poet must not be Goldsmith.

Carl Burnett said...

"Snap," of course, is said in a totally different situation in African-American English: it means, "Wow, you just got insulted!"

lynneguist said...

One does that while snapping one's fingers though, right?

Carl Burnett said...

Perhaps originally it was accompanied with a snapping of the fingers, but I've never seen that done.

It's not even used exclusively as an insult or exclusively by African-Americans anymore, either. I've heard planty of black and white people my age (20s) use it as a spontaneous expression of anythign unexpected, from dismay ("Oh, snap! I forgot to pay the rent!") to joy ("Snap! She a hottie!").

John said...

In my childhood, one had to count to ten before a jinx could take effect, with the slower counter not allowed to speak until their name is said.

I really like the idea of using "Snap!" to mean "Me, too." It does remind me of an annoying practice in office conversation. When two people are dressed similarly, such as brown pants and blue shirts, one will invariably remark, "Oh, I see you got the memo!" The meaning, of course, is that someone sent out reminders about how everyone should dress the next day.

Ster said...

I grew up saying "jink" too, and then when you both said "jinx" at the same time it would just go on and on. My boys say "double jinx." There is no pinky link, though. We link pinkies when we "pinky promise" to mean than it is a promise that will NOT be broken (I guess ordinary ones can?)

Eli said...

There is a game that sounds similar to slapjack (but with many more rules) called Egyptian Ratscrew (or ERS or Egyptian War) that was popular at my high school (in Evanston, IL). The fact that people at my summer camp from all around the US were well aware of it would seem to indicate that it was not just a Midwest or a Chicago thing.

Keeping one's rings on when playing ERS was seen as the equivalent of arming one's nuclear missiles and putting half the launch codes in: all but mutual annihilation assured.

I think I'm going to start using "(BrE) snap" in everyday conversation. It just seems all-around useful.

lisa said...

When I was a child and someone wanted a fight or game to end they crossed their fingers and shouted 'feinites' Children were honour bound to stop when that happened. I never really knew how it was spelled but that's what it sounded like.

Kim said...

Great article!!

I am a bit confused how the 'buttercup' thing works - is anyone able to explain it a bit more.

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

In Tasmania around 1950 we used to link little fingers, wish and say the name of a poet. We could not say Shakespeare because this would 'spear the wish.

Ven n/a said...

I was having a lovely game of online scrabble with an American when she suddenly turned all abusive. I was really taken aback and said something like "What the f was that for?" After it a bit it transpired that I had "started it" by saying "Snap". All I meant of course was that she had just played the the same word as I had. I had no idea of the negative connotation and so it was some time before I understood what had happened. A gesture of solidarity rebuffed. I wish she had been the one to say "What was that for?" before getting abusive.

Anonymous said...

I know that no one will probably see this but if you do and are like me please respond. I Googled "being able to say the same thing that someone else does at the same time." I can repeat what someone says at the exact time they say it. I can also do it in foreign languages that I do not speak. Is there anyone out there that can do this. It has no socially redeeming value not to mention it is highly annoying to the person being repeated. I only know of two people that can do this one being Merv Griffin and another man I saw on TV a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

'Anonymous :I have been experiencing this quite often recently. Three times today. For example, I type or text a word, and someone says the same word on the television or beside me. In the caribbean when this happens we say " Die before me but don't kill me " instead of "jinx".