Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Jinx and padiddle: games we play

My latest column in the Malaysia Star is about the words that go with the games we play when something unexpected happens. Not games of chance, but games of whimsy.

Rituals and superstitions and the words that go with them are a favourite topic on the radio show I co-host. Our listeners can’t get enough and the e-mail keeps coming in long after we discuss them on the air.

For example, if two children are talking and they accidentally say the same thing at the same time, then the first to say “jinx!” scores a point over the other person. The jinx-shouter has the right to demand a punishment of the other person, especially their silence. That person is not permitted to say anything until they are unjinxed.

The rituals for getting unjinxed – being permitted to speak again—are complicated and can vary even within a single school. They usually involve the recitation of a lot of nonsense words like “jinkle pink pickle jinx, I love you.”

This exposes the jinxed to further embarrassment because “I love you” must be said to another child—usually someone agreed to be loathsome. To get unjinxed, you have to suffer a little.

In parts of the United States, they say “Jinx! You owe me a coke!” when two people speak as one. Coke is a short name for the Coca-Cola brand soda, though in parts of the American south it means any brand of soda pop or fizzy drink. The penalty here is, of course, having to buy the other person a soda.

Another thing that can be done when two children accidentally say the same thing at once, especially between close friends, is pinky-swearing. They each hook the little finger of one hand to the other person’s pinky, they recite some rhyme known to them both, and they perform other gestures, such as clapping or complicated handshakes.

The rituals surrounding jinx are a form of childhood superstition. It is, for some reason, bad luck to say something at the same time as someone else. So the charms and chants are a way of deflecting that bad luck.

Another superstitious practice is bread and butter.

If you’re walking down the street with a friend and you encounter an obstruction—a telephone pole, a mailbox, an open manhole—and each of you walks around a different side of the obstruction, then one of you says “bread and butter” and other says “come to supper.”

In another version, the first person says “peanut butter” and the second says “jelly.” There are many more versions, each with the idea that the vague threat of bad luck is avoided by saying something.

This isn’t so much a superstition as it is a ritual or road game: padiddle, variously called bediddle, padoodle, padungle, perdiddle and perdiddo. In this game, when you’re riding in a car and you see another car with only one working headlight, you shout “perdiddle!” If you shout it first, you get the right to punch another passenger on the arm. Not very sporting, really, but those are the games of children (and some adults).

An older version of padiddle was a kissing game. If a couple (meaning a man and a woman who are romantically involved) are out for spin (for a drive in the car) and the man is the first to spy a car with one working headlight, then he shouts “padiddle!” which gives him the right to kiss his gal. If the woman spies the car first, then she shouts it out and gets to slap her guy. Seems like an even trade.

There’s also a variation of the padiddle that involves the tail-lights of a car, rather than the headlights, and it has many variations, too: padunkle, padonkle, perdunkle, pasquaddle, paduchi, Popeye and dinklepink.

The many rules for jinx and the many variant names for padiddle are a good indication that these customs are passed by word of mouth or by observation and not through education or from reading books.

Strange things can happen to words that are passed mainly in spoken form. For example, the variants “perdiddle” and “perdiddo” result from what is called R intrusion, in which a speaker adds an R sound even though there is no letter R in the word. Thus, padiddle becomes perdiddle.

R-intrusion is common in some dialects of American English. You can, for example, often hear it in the word “wash” which is made to sound like warsh. Washington, too, sometimes sounds like Warshington.

Given that these intrusive Rs are consistent and follow set patterns, we know that they are a feature of dialect—kind of a minority sub-language—and not simply a lot of people making the same mistake.

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Grant Barrett