December 17, 2003

High jinx

Apparently the legendary Philadelphia middle school jinx masters are just the start of the story. Jinx lore, it seems, is a sort of lexicographic Drosophila melanogaster, with many existing variants, and new mutations forming and recombining before our eyes.

Greg Urban sent me a pointer to this Texas folklore page, describing a cooperative (?) jinx-avoiding ritual consisting of saying "jinx, you owe me a coke." Other sources cite the formula "pinch, poke, owe me a coke", which is more euphonious and also sounds somewhat less cooperative, and the response "wearing blue, you owe me two."

Laurie and Winifred Bauer, of the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at the University of Wellington, have a fascinating and extensive site documenting a two-year project on NZ Children's Playground Vocabulary. They provide this discussion of jinxes, in which they observe that

The main finding is that practices vary considerably from school to school, and that the same words used in setting up the jinx will not necessarily involve similar penalties or clearance procedures. It is clear that there is a good deal of invention in making jinxes harder to clear, and harsher to incur, and that there are basically no fixed understandings of how jinxes will work. This is an area of potential difficulty for children who move schools: there were 57 different forms of jinx reported, and a variety of penalties and clearance procedures. ...

The commonest wordings of the jinx were personal jinx (118 reports) and jinx (61). They are often differentiated in terms of who can clear the jinx: if you say personal jinx, then only the jinxer can clear the jinx, while if you say jinx, then anybody can clear the jinx. However, it is clear that in some schools, personal jinx functions like jinx as described above, and private/master jinx or personal jinx padlock functions like personal jinx above. ... Sometimes a longer formula is required, e.g. jinx, jinx, personal jinx, reported 15 times. ... Other long formulae include personal private personal jinx, jinx personal personal jinx. Double jinx was reported 8 times, and during school visits, this was said to mean that the jinxer and one other person could clear the jinx. There were a host of one-report-only variations: banana personal jinx (which incurs the penalty of being hit 100 times), commander jinx (where the jinxer can command the jinxee to do anything they fancy), infinity jinx, golden jinx, smelly jinx, caller jinx, unbeatable jinx, ...

Here is a (non-serious!) story from a Bath (UK) student newspaper, describing "jinx gangs", and a "jinx king" who "openly boasted about extorting hundreds a week from other children at his comprehensive school. By singling out victims who were easy targets, such as those singing, or telling well known jokes, he was able to jinx up to forty pupils per day." The most affecting story is this one:

After last week, the name of Little Hussock will go down in history as a place of tragedy. During a school service at the local church, a pupil of the local primary school shouted ‘jinx’ immediately after the Lord’s prayer had been said. 342 children, staff and parents were struck dumb in one cruel blow.

Normally, this would have been just an inconvenience. However the boy, hoping to escape punishment, ran from the church and out onto a busy main road. Driven by the thrill of jinx, he failed to look where he was going and was promptly flattened by a lorry.

With the jinx-er unable to say the names of those jinxed, they may remain unable to speak for the rest of their lives. Scientists are currently looking into cloning technology in an attempt to recreate the boy, although experts doubt that this will meet the stringent criteria of jinx removal. Others have simply said that those jinxed should ignore the speaking restrictions, but what do they know?

I wonder what the jinx culture of non-English-speaking countries is like, and whether there is any international effort to establish best jinx practices and harmonize jinx standards :-)...

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 17, 2003 12:00 AM