The Principle of Least Interest

The Principle of Least Interest for Writers quote

Sociologists, economists, therapists, and every other sort of -ists have studied The Principle of Least Interest, but it’s incredibly important for writers as well. This is one of those areas in which science has confirmed what common sense has long maintained: the person who cares the least has the most power. This principle works everywhere from the housing market to the marriage market. (I wrote about this topic previously in 2015.)

That’s definitely a selling point.

If the buyer is more eager to buy than the seller is to sell, the seller will determine the selling price. If he loves her more than she loves him, he could end up the proverbial hen-pecked husband of so many comedies; vice versa and she is a candidate for the downtrodden foot-wipe—perhaps abused—wife of so many tragedies.

This principle is so well understood that sometimes people try to disguise their true levels of caring/interest (talk of other great offers forthcoming, flirting with or dating a rival). Inherent in disguise is the understanding that what counts is often the perception of least interest.

The First Take-Away for Writers:

For your characters, know who has the power (the least interest) and who is perceived to have it. And if your work has more than two characters, you need to understand the power relationships for each pair.

The elephant has the least interest in this relationship.

Unlike a credit score, people can’t go on-line and check out their power ratings. The primary reason that power relationships are often unclear is that the bases of power are virtually limitless: expertise, physical attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, athletic ability, knowledge of secrets, ability to make the other’s life miserable, being popular, great sense of humor—anything and everything that is important to that pair. Knowing the facts doesn’t tell you/the reader who has the power.

If she married him for the money and he married her for the Green Card, who cares more? What if we add in that she is beautiful and he’s a great problem-solver; she’s moody and he’s uncommunicative; he’s a natural athlete and she manages their money; they’re both extremely intelligent and care mightily for their two children. As the author, you can determine who has the power by giving weight to these factors based on the characters’ perceptions of what is important.

The Second Take-Away for Writers:

Anytime you think humans have total power over dogs, just remember which one is picking up the other’s poop.

Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.

In many relationships—for example, boss/employee, parent/child, older sibling/younger sibling, teacher/student—the general expectation would be that the total power package would favor the former. But my guess is that most readers don’t read to confirm the norm; they like to be surprised.

The Third Take-Away for Writers:

You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.

And just to end on a high-brow note: according to Lord Acton, “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Consider how less-than-absolute power might corrupt your character(s).

Bottom Line

  • Know who has the power and who is perceived to have it.
  • Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.
  • You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.

Learn more

“Who Has the Upper Hand? Power, Sex, and Seinfeld” by Dr. Benjamin Le

The Personal Use of Social Psychology by Michael J. Lovaglia (2007)

Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings by Roy F. Baumeister (2001)

THE MADE-UP MAN

Chinese Opera Performer
Denise Chan – Chinese Opera, CC BY 2.0

The men’s beauty and makeup market, already a billion-dollar industry, is expected to grow to nearly $20 billion by 2027.

A recent survey on Ipsos found that among heterosexual men ages 18-65, 15% reported currently using male cosmetics and makeup, and another 17% say they would consider doing so in the future. 

Who were the nay-sayers? 73% of men 51 and over, compared to 37% of men 18-34.

Makeup on Ancient Male Faces

Some might wonder “What’s the world coming to?” A more accurate question might be, “What’s the world getting back to?” An article—with pictures—at humanistbeauty.com makes the following five points about men’s early use of cosmetics.

Men were wearing makeup as long ago as 3000 BCE in China and Japan. Men used natural ingredients to make nail polish, face powder, rouge, and eyeliners, all signs of status and wealth. Archaeologists found a “portable” makeup box with a bronze mirror, large and small wooden combs, a scraper, and powder box. In the Han Dynasty, civil servants known as Lang Shi Zhong wore elaborate makeup and hairstyles when they appeared in court. Male attendents of Emporer Hui (210-188 BCE) of the Han Dynasty were forbidden “to go on duty without putting on powder.”

Horus, depicted wearing khol, from the Tomb of Nefertari

In ancient Egypt, men rimmed their eyes in black “cat” eye patterns as a sign of wealth (it also helps to reduce sun glare — as modern baseball and football players have found). They also wore pigments on their cheeks and lip stains made from red ochre.  Makeup was an important way of showcasing masculinity and social rank.

Silla envoy visiting the Tang Emperor
6th century, China

In ancient Korea, the Silla people believed that beautiful souls inhabited beautiful bodies, so they embraced makeup and jewelry for both genders.  Hwarang, an elite warrior group of male youth, wore makeup, jade rings, bracelets, necklaces, and other accessories. They used face powder and rouge on their cheeks and lips.

Skipping to Elizabethan England: the goal was for skin to look flawless. Men powdered their faces to whiten the skin as a sign of wealth, intelligence, and power. Fashionable courtiers dyed, curled, starched, and waxed their beards and moustaches into elaborate arrangements. To achieve the desired effect, men spent hours painting their faces, necks, hands, and hair into fantastic conifgurations that lasted for days before being removed. However, cosmetics during the Elizabethan age were dangerous due to lead, mercury, arsenic, and allum in the majority of products. These cosmetics could lead to blindness, seizures, hair loss, sterility, and premature death.

Makeup on More Recent Male Faces

Five Orders of Periwigs
from The genius of William Hogarth

Men’s love affair with makeup—for specific purposes, traditions, and enjoyment died a slow death in the 18th century when Queen Victoria associated makeup with the devil and declared it a horrible invention.

I read somewhere or other that George Washington issued a pound of flour with each soldier’s rations for use on his wig or hair. Though few soldiers wore full wigs, many attached fake plaits to their own hair or the backs of their hats. During the Revolutionary War, American wig and hair fashions were much less elaborate than those of British aristocrats, like the simpler fashions for ladies’ dresses on this side of the Atlantic. (Washington himself curled and powdered his own hair rather than wearing a wig; he was a natural redhead!)

From a men’s fashion magazine, 1879

After the American Revolutionary War, the use of visible “paint” (color for lips, skin, eyes, and nails) gradually became socially unacceptable for both sexes in the U.S.  Painting one’s face was considered vulgar and was associated with prostitution and actresses/actors.  But did people stop using them?

Of course not!  True, few cosmetics were manufactured in America during most of the nineteenth century. However, folks (mostly women) went DIY, using recipes that circulated among friends, family, and sometimes printed in women’s magazines and cookbooks. 

Although original sources are hard to come by, you can find some on Kate Tattersall’s blog entry on Victorian Make-up Recipes; powders, lip salves, creams, & other cosmetics of the 1800’s. Here are a couple of examples.

Lip Salve
Take 1 ounce of white wax and ox marrow, 3 ounces of white pomatum, and melt all in a bath heat; add a drachm of alkanet, and stir it till it acquire a reddish colour.

To Blacken the Eye-lashes and Eye-brows
The simplest preparation for this purpose are the juice of elder-berries; burnt cork, or cloves burnt at the candle. Some employ the black of frankincense, resin, and mastic; this black, it is said, will not come off with perspiration.

Pearl Powders, for the Complexion
1. Take pearl or bismuth white, and French chalk, equal parts. R educe them to a fine powder, and sift through lawn.
2. Take 1 pound white bismuth, 1 ounce starch powder, and 1 ounce orrispowder; mix and sift them through lawn. Add a drop of attar of roses or neroli.

Scientist at the Departmnt of Agriculture tests cosmetics for lead acetate and other potentially harmful materials.

Of course, the simplest way to “lighten” the complexion was with starch, applied with a hare’s foot or soft brush.  Pale skin indicated social class/wealth: brown skin signaled outdoor labor.

Thus lotions, powders, and skin washes—to lighten complexions and diminish the visibility of blemishes or freckles—remained in use. 

Druggists sold ingredients for these recipes, and sometimes ready-made products. Given the association of “paint” with prostitution (and actors), products needed to appear “natural.” Some secretly stained their lips and cheeks with pigments from petals or berries, or used ashes to darken eyebrows and eyelashes. 

Victorian men typically adorned their faces with hair rather than cosmetics.

Technological advances in photography, interior lighting, and creating reflective surfaces led to a rise in “visual self-awareness” throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This, coupled with a rise in wide-spread advertising through print mediums, created a wider market for commercially produced cosmetics.

In the late 1960s, norms again celebrated ideals of natural beauty—as in the Victorian era—including a rejection of make-up altogether by some. Cosmetics companies returned to touting products for a “natural” look. 

Makeup on Performing Male Faces

Beijing opera performer with traditional stage make up.
by Saad Akhtar

Makeup for actors never went out of fashion, so it’s no surprise that the recent increase in makeup use for men has been led by entertainers. Performers used cosmetics as part of costumes or to ensure their facial features remained visible on stage or on screen. Stylized makeup designs correspond to specific roles in classical forms of Japanese, Thai, Indian, and Chinese theater traditions.

The popularity of the Ballet Russe in Paris in the beginning of the 20th century led to an increase in the social acceptability of wearing makeup. When the Ballet went on tour, there was a corresponding boom in cosmetic sales and advertising in countries where they performed.

Goth Metal fan

Waves of glam rock, heavy metal, goth, and punk musicians in the 1970s and 1980s inspired legions of fans to don makeup to perform and to disrupt social norms. Just think of KISS, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson, King Diamond, Boy George, or Alice Cooper.

The elaborate makeup and costumes of Glam Rock stars such as Boy George and David Bowie challenged gender expectations.

Heavy Metal performers such as Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson are as recognizable for their stage makeup as for their stage costumes and music styles.

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Makeup on Modern Male Faces

Men are now open to using a variety of products, including facial cleansers, exfoliants, serums, moisturizers, and most recently, cosmetics.1

Li Jiaqi, a Chinese makeup blogger and lipstick tester

For centuries, gender binaries established during the 17th and 18th centuries influenced who typically wore makeup–women! But make-up for men (and those who identify as male) may be here to stay—and goes way beyond entertainers and political statements.

Young Yuh, who has 1.6 million followers on TikTok and posts skin care and makeup tutorials full-time, says makeup is key to his self-expression. His view is that it’s like hygiene, or hairstyle, or any number of other personal choices and should not be bound by gender identification. His daily routine includes cleanser, toner, some type of serum, moisturizer, sunscreen, primer, concealer, contour, blush and eyeliner—no doubt a bit much for many! 

The hashtag #meninmakeup has more than 250 million views on TikTok. And The New York Times Style Magazine article “Makeup Is For Everyone” gives a great overview of the most recent developments and resources online.

Manny Gutierrez

In 2017, Maybelline launched their Collosus mascara campaign featuring Manny Gutierrez with the tagline “Lash Like a Boss.”  Patrick Starr, a Filipino-American makeup artist and fashion designer, collaborated with MAC makeup to launch a collection of his own design. In 2016, Gabriel Zamora became the first male makeup artist to join Ipsy makeup. Advertisements both reflect the current culture and feed it.

Bottom line: Men are now open to using a variety of products, including facial cleansers, exfoliants, serums, moisturizers, and most recently, cosmetics.

(Writers note: depending on your audience, you might want your guys’ grooming to include more than a shave and a hair cut.)

Kamil woman applying khol to her son’s face to ward off the Evil Eye
by Etan Doronne

THE NOSE KNOWS!

Suku Jahai from Penang, Malaysia – Suku Jahai, CC BY-SA 2.0
By Muhammad Adzha

English is pretty anaemic when it comes to scent. We have to attach adjectives like “putrid” or “mown grass.” On the other hand, the Jahai people of Malaysia have words attached to specific smells, with meanings like “to have a stinging smell, to smell of human urine,” and “to have a bloody smell that attracts tigers.’

Horse nose (scent)

Researchers at Rockefeller University estimated that humans can detect at least a trillion distinct smells. That leads me to conclude that need determines what we do with specific ones.  This conclusion is supported by other evidence: in tribes that have recently switched from hunting and gathering to farming, smell words often vanish. 

Abigail Tucker explores the sense of smell in the Smithsonian Magazine article “Scents and Sensibility.”  (Full reference below). Do read it! To whet your appetite, here are some bits that I found particularly interesting.

Cow nose (scent)

Scents and the Body

Proboscis monkey nose (scent)

Females are more sensitive to smells than males.

Research indicates that infants are habituated via mothers’ milk to react more positively to the smell of things the mothers eat.

The human nose comes in 14 basic shapes and sizes.

(FYI, not in the article: noses and ears do not continue to grow during adulthood. They do change shape, however, due to skin changes and gravity.)

Many “tastes” are actually smell; chocolate, for example.

(I remember a classic psychology experiment that demonstrated that, without olfactory or visual clues, people couldn’t tell bits of apple from bits of onion.)

Nose (scent)

The exposed nature of scent receptors in the nose make them especially vulnerable to environmental toxins.  

Apparently olfactory receptors can become fatigued.

The sense of smell declines with age, especially in those over 50. By age 80, 75% of people exhibit what could be classified as a smell disorder. (Oh, sigh.)

Pretty much everyone has “blind spots” when it comes to smell. For example, not everyone can smell asparagus in their pee—but if you can, you can smell it in anyone’s urine.

Also not covered in this article: virtually everyone can become noseblind when exposed to the same smell for a prolonged period of time. Consider entering a room and noticing an odor at first but not later.

Vintage advertisement

Scent Power

Tapir nose (scent)

A human without visual or auditory cues can track a scent through the grass of a public park—but not as well as a dog can.

Some psychological conditions affect sense of smell. For example, research has linked autism to an enhanced sense of smell. On the other had, depression and Parkinson’s disease are related to decreased sensitivity.

Culture affects what we smell and how we react to specific smells. 

Besides genetic and cultural factors, certain smells evoke a visceral reaction specific to the individual, depending on life history.  Research participants are able to access more emotional memories when exposed to a smell as opposed to a picture of the source of the smell. 

Anteater nose (scent)

Andreas Keller, a prominent neuroscientist specializing in olfaction, has opened a gallery, Olfactory Art, where smell is central to the experience!

How does the nose know? We still don’t know!  “Olfaction has always been an underdog sense. It’s both primitive and complex, which makes it hard to study and harder still to transfer to our increasingly digital existence. … smells cannot at this point be recorded or emailed or Instagrammed.”

In a 2011 survey, more than half of the young adults said they’d rather give up their sense of smell than their cell phones. Little did they know what that sacrifice would entail.

BOTTOM LINE: COVID’s notorious effects on the sense of smell has triggered a new appreciation of the role of scents in our lives, for both pleasure and safety.

“Scents and Sensibility” by Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2022, pp 66-80.

Pig snout scent

NAPPING RIGHT

It’s human nature to have an energy slump in the afternoon, sometime between 1:00 and 4:00. It’s tied to our circadian rhythm. Two ways to combat midday fatigue: napping and exercising. This blog deals only with the former! (I’ve previously written about sleeping habits here.) On average, adults who nap do so 94.3 days each year.

Power Naps

In the 1990s, James Maas, a social psychologist and sleep expert coined the term power nap, 10 to 20 minutes long, to boost energy and alertness. A power nap is reputed to allow workers to get back to work right away because this amount of sleep does not yet reach the deeper states of a sleep cycle. The napper stays in the lighter stages of non-dreaming sleep. And for some, apparently, it works;  42.7% of U.S. full-time workers say they regularly nap during a break in a typical workday, 

Avoid 30-minute naps.

They cause “sleep inertia,” a groggy state that can last for another 30 minutes after waking up. This is because the body is forced awake right after beginning, but not completing, the deeper stages of sleep. 

A 60-minute nap might be okay.

Sleeping for 60 minutes includes the deepest type of sleep, slow-wave sleep. Because of this, the one-hour nap is ideal for helping an individual better remember faces, names, and facts. However, your brain will not complete a sleep cycle in only 60 minutes, so you may not be very alert for some time after waking up.

The ideal nap is 90-minutes.

This is the length of one full sleep cycle, which includes all the light and deep (REM and dreaming) stages of sleep. A full sleep cycle nap improves procedural and emotional memory (e.g. for playing musical instruments and driving). A 90-minute nap can also significantly boost one’s creativity. Because the nap is a full sleep cycle, waking up should come much easier. (This according to the National Sleep Foundation.)

Actually, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 20 or 90 minutes, but I prefer the latter!

On the other hand, the Mayo Clinic is very specific: the ideal nap occurs between 2pm and 3pm and lasts between 10 and 30 minutes. This takes advantage of one’s normal post-meal dip in energy and, if finished by 3pm, poses the least risk for causing sleeplessness at night.

Among older adults, shorter naps (less than 30 minutes) are reported by adults with better health; long naps (e.g., longer than 90 minutes) have been linked to cardiovascular problems and diabetes, declining cognitive function, and increased mortality.

Benefits of Napping

There are lots of benefits to sneaking in power naps every once in a while.

  • Curb the side effects of temporary sleep deprivation.  If you missed getting adequate sleep the night before, a quick nap can be restorative. 
    • Note: Temporary sleep deprivation refers to a night every once in a while in which you don’t get enough sleep.
  • Improve memory function and job performance.  Younger people definitely benefit from a quick nap in the afternoon, which can help them immensely with their studies, if they are in school. People of all ages can enhance job performance (and physical performance, in general) with a brief period of shut eye. If you feel sluggish while at work or in school, you may be able to improve the situation with a nap.
  • Lower blood pressure. 
  • Prevent mistakes in judgment or accidents while driving or operating machinery.  Drowsy driving is dangerous and can strike anybody at any time.
  • Heal the body. A brief nap can help relieve stress, allow the body to heal inflammation and injury, and improve mood.

Napping Can Be Problematic

  • If you have insomnia, you might exacerbate or even cause it by taking naps.  If you take long naps or nap  later in the afternoon, they may alter your circadian rhythms, leading to trouble with falling asleep at bedtime. On the other hand, people with severe insomnia might find themselves only ever able to take short naps, rather than sleeping all night.
  • If you have unidentified or poorly addressed sleep disorders—for example obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—you will not cure it with naps. 
  • If you are diabetic, or likely to develop diabetes, note that recent research has linked long afternoon naps (over an hour) to Type II Diabetes. Observational studies of more than 300,000 people by the University of Tokyo found a link between long napping and a 45 percent increase in the incidence of diabetes when naps lasted at least 60 minutes.
  • If you don’t know what is causing your daytime fatigue, it might be better to avoid napping altogether.  Aside from sleep disorders, there’s a whole range of other causes, from prescription medications to underlying health problems to depression and mood disorders.

The prevalence of napping in older adults ranges from 20% to 60% in different studies, but is consistently reported to be higher than in other age groups. Age-related changes in circadian rhythm and sleep patterns, cultural beliefs, chronic conditions, medications, and lifestyle changes contribute to the high prevalence of napping in older adults.  

(FYI: If people lived alone in total dark, “days” would be about 25 hours each. However, our body clocks reset each day based on the sun’s light/dark cycles—plus alarm clocks, work schedules, and the world in general.) 

Bottom Line: Both short and long naps can increase alertness and be useful. Choose depending on personal rhythms, why you are napping, and environmental constraints.

ATHLETIC BONES

I can’t help it: every October my thoughts turn to bones. Bones—especially skulls and skeletons—are sort of my thing. Athletics, not so much.

Still, I have it on the best authority—an authority, anyway—that October is the best month for sports, too. Sammy Sucu (bleacherreport.com) ranks October #1 for sports fans.

Australian Rules Football, where kicking a rival player in the head may be perfectly acceptable
  1. World Series and MLB playoffs
  2. NBA and NHL seasons begin
  3. NFL is in full swing
  4. College basketball begins
  5. College football rivalry matches
  6. Soccer and their rivalry matches

Clearly, this is a biased list. There are roughly 200 sports that are internationally recognized, and besides those listed above, dozens of them are played in October: ice skating, rugby, weight lifting, cricket, badminton/table tennis, sailing, tennis, beach volleyball, chess, karate, golf, various motor sports, swimming, field hockey, skiing, and gymnastics, among others. Plus, October is National Roller Skating Month!

Put them together, and October might also be the month with the most broken bones. 

Most Breakable Sports—Where Broken Bones are Common

Bones that are most commonly fractured during sports are in the wrist, hand, ankle, foot, and collarbone. (FYI, in talking about bones, a break is the same as a fracture.)

Types of Fractures

Stress fractures are most commonly seen in athletes whose sports require repetitive movements such as marathon runners.  I know a woman who developed stress fractures in her ankle while training for a marathon but decided to run anyway. She ran 26.2 miles on a fractured ankle, in a tremendous amount of pain.

Inline skating had the greatest risk for impact fractures. This is according to one study across various sports (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7040946/).  

A fracture occurred in 20.6% of the emergency department visits for sports-related injuries.

Most of the fractures occurred in football players (22.5%).

The OR (odds ratios) for fracture was highest for inline skating (OR, 6.03), males (OR, 1.21), Asians, whites, and Amerindians (OR, 1.46, 1.25, and 1.18, respectively), and those older than 84 years (OR, 4.77).

Fractures are most common in contact sports such as basketball, rugby, and football.  The most commonly fractured bones in contact sports are the hands, wrist, collarbone, ankle, feet, and the long bones of the lower extremities.  Overall, contact sport athletes have a high risk of fractures in ankles and feet because they get into vulnerable positions while playing. 

Among High School athletes, the highest rate of fractures was in football (4.61 per 10 000 athlete exposures) and the lowest in volleyball (0.52). Boys were more likely than girls to sustain fractures in basketball and soccer.

Most fractures heal in 6-8 weeks, but this varies tremendously from bone to bone and in each person. Hand and wrist fractures often heal in 4-6 weeks whereas a tibia fracture may take 20 weeks or more.

But broken bones aren’t the biggest risk.  I’m surprised that the top 7 most frequent sports injuries seldom involve bone fractures.

  1. Knee Injury. About 55% of sports injuries occur in the knee.
  2. ACL Tear. Your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is responsible for connecting your thigh to your shinbone at your knee.
  3. Tennis or Golf Elbow
  4. Shin Splints
  5. Groin Pull
  6. Sciatica
  7. Hamstring Strain

Safest Sports—Where Broken Bones are Rare

Common hand injury from repetitive golf swings

1. Swimming  It’s easy on the joints and can be an aid in recovery after an injury as well as being the safest sport in America.

2. Cheerleading Occasional falls may cause broken bones, especially during practice new routines.

3. Golf Anytime players are not required to physically touch one another will more than likely make for a safer sport. Golf injuries most often occur from the repetitive action of swinging the golf club.

4. Track and Field  The most common types of injuries are running injuries such as ankle arthritis, sprains in the knees, shin splints and knee injuries. 

5. Baseball Also not a contact sport, the most common injury is rotator cuff tears, especially for pitchers.  Other injuries include the ulnar collateral ligament, knee injuries, and muscle sprains. Additional possible injuries include a pitched ball hitting a batter’s face and concussions from falls while fielders go for a catch.  

FYI, Top 10 broken bones overall (not just athletes)

  1. Clavicle
  2. Arm
  3. Wrist
  4. Hip
  5. Ankle
  6. Foot
  7. Toe
  8. Hand
  9. Finger
  10. Leg.

Not all fractures get a cast! A clavicle, for example. Also a coccyx. 

Sports That Help Prevent Broken Bones

Athletes participating in weightbearing sports have an approximately 10% higher Bone Mineral Density than nonathletes, and athletes in high-impact sports have a higher BMD compared with medium- or low-impact sports.

Investigators found that soccer and gymnastics participants have the highest bone density in most body segments and the lowest fat mass, while swimming had the lowest bone mineral density at most skeletal sites.

Boxing improves bone mineral density. The forces through the hands and arms stimulate bones to mineralize and strengthen, ultimately reducing the risk of developing osteopenia or osteoporosis and potentially even reversing the conditions in some cases.

Osteoporosis is a disorder characterized by low bone density and impaired bone strength, an important risk factor for fracture.  Low bone mass poses a particular challenge for athletes because it predisposes to stress-related bone injuries and increases the risk of osteoporosis and insufficiency fractures with aging.

My Personal Bone Break Stories 

1) In second grade I climbed to the top of the swing set and fell, breaking my left arm. That was pretty cool, getting attention, signatures, and artwork on the cast.

Sacral Insufficiency Fracture

2) The first time I tried downhill skiing, I sat down on the edge of my ski and I broke my tailbone. The local ski injury doctor (!) said I should sit on a rubber donut and then he gave me a prescription for pain pills that I could refill ten times. (This was decades ago, of course.) When I asked whether there was nothing he could actually do about it, he said that if still had trouble — if I still had difficulty riding in a car — a year or so down the line, a doctor could surgically remove it.  

(Last year, I posted a blog about human bones/skeletons in general and another about the all-important spine. Still good info there.)

Bottom line: Choose your activities carefully and take care of your bones.

Behavioral Analysis for Authors

Guest blog by Kathleen Corcoran

There are lots of ways to determine how a fictional character will react in any given situation. Generally, an author has some idea of how the main characters will behave during the major plot points. However, one of the keys to making a story believable is writing actions and reactions that make sense.

To get details of a very different system of understanding motivations, I talked with Angela Johns, BCBA, LBA, about her work as a Behavior Analyst.

Four Primary Functions

When a person (or animal) performs an action, that action fulfills one of four basic functions. A behavioral analysis therapist works to change behavior patterns by identifying the function and substituting the unwanted behavior with a more acceptable behavior that meets the same function.

Attention
from Portland Center Stage

When the Bennets attend the Netherfield Ball, Mary Bennet wants attention and praise, so she takes over the piano and embarrasses her family by playing and singing rather obnoxiously. Mary gets negative attention and lukewarm praise, but her original need for attention has still been met. (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

Access to Tangible Rewards

Santiago, having finally caught a fish, would quite like to keep that fish. The story is filled with metaphor and lovely language, but Santiago ultimately holds on to the fishing line because he wants to reel in and keep the marlin that he caught. (The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway)

Sensory or Automatic

Dr. Polyakov initially takes morphine to relieve pain in his stomach. Later, he takes morphine to alleviate the despair and heartache of his life. As the addiction becomes worse, he takes morphine because he becomes unable to function without it. (“Morphine” by Mikhail Bulgakov)

Escape or Avoidance

While waiting for Odysseus to return to Ithaca, Penelope delayed giving in to any of the suitors badgering her by claiming she had to weave a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. Every night, she unwove the portion she’d woven during the day. She managed to avoid either giving in to any of the suitors or giving any of them a pretense for starting a war. (The Odyssey by Homer)

“We Work Ourselves Out of a Job”

A behavioral analysis expert will work with a patient (and caregivers) to adjust behaviors by identifying which function an unwanted behavior fulfills and substituting another behavior that meets the same function. For example, raising a hand for attention from a teacher rather than shouting in class.

As Johns put it, “The whole point of us [behavioral analysts] is to work ourselves out of a job.”

They do this by observing the behavior (often in a patient’s home), looking at the antecedents, defining the consequences, and determining the function. Experts work with patients to reduce harmful behaviors, establish beneficial habits, focus at school, improve communications, and a variety of other goals.

Behavioral analysis experts primarily work with autistic patients, but applied behavioral analysis also serves a role in everything from fitness training to consumer spending research.

Fictional Behavioral Analysis
Sometimes behavioral antecedents are easily identified.

An author can use a similar technique to create believable motivations for a character’s actions. Identify which behavior is needed to advance the plot or set up a situation, then create circumstances that will trigger that behavior. Rather than identifying antecedents, an author has the luxury of creating antecedents.

  • If the clue to identifying a murderer is in the kitchen, make the character hungry so they’ll go in search of food.
  • If a character needs to go to jail for theft, that character first needs a reason for the theft, even if that reason is kleptomania or greed.
  • Perhaps a character spills their soul to a new acquaintance because they are looking for attention.
  • Maybe someone lights a cigarette so they don’t have to answer uncomfortable questions.

Stories don’t make much sense (and aren’t much fun to read) if characters do things for no reason.

This is, of course, a major oversimplification of the years of training and work a behavioral analyst does. For more information, check out the Kennedy Krieger Institute or The IRIS Center.

NAME FUNNEL

No one can know when humans first used personal names. The only thing we can be sure of is that when there was a need, names emerged—personal names first, of course. As long as people lived in small enough groups, seldom traveling more than fifteen miles and delivering messages in person, single names were sufficient. But as populations grew, greater distinctions needed to be made.

This receipt for barley shipments contains the signature of the first person in history whose name we know: Kushim, the accountant.

World Names

According legend, Fuxi Feng first gave people names, including family names.

Records of Chinese family names date back at least 3,000 years, and were standardized during the Qin Dynasty. The Amorite and Aramean tribes in Mesopotamia used a combination of patronymic and tribal nisbas nearly 4,000 years ago. Ancient Romans gave their male children three names: a personal name (praenomen), a family name (nomen gentilicium), and a descriptor of their particular branch of the family tree (cognomen).

The Armenian military may have been responsible for reintroducing family names in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In Europe, last names came into use in the Middle Ages and were well established by the end of the 16th century. According to some sources, the oldest surname known to have been recorded anywhere in Europe was in County Galway, Ireland, in 916: O’Cleirigh (O’Clery), meaning “descended from the clerk/cleric.”

J.N.Hook, author of Family Names, identified four categories that were the source of almost all English and European surnames:

Possibly not the Keeper of the Park my ancestors had in mind…
(a Sagittarius serpentarius at Jurong Bird Park)
  • Place Names:
    • John Hill, John Atwater.
    • Often O’ indicated from, as in Odell or Offield
  • Patronyms (or others based on personal names)
    • John Johnson, John Williams, John Alexander.
    • Often a prefix or ending meaning “son of” or “daughter of” was later dropped
  • Occupational Names
    • John Smith, John Fletcher
    • My family name Parker is of English origin, from Old French meaning “keeper of the park.”
    • Today the most popular of the names derived from occupations is—no surprise here—Smith,
  • Descriptive Names
    • John Long, John Armstrong
    • The family name Brown is thought to have come from an early family member who had brown hair or brown eyes or dressed habitually in brown.

American Names

Robyn Smith runs the fascinating genealogy website ReclaimingKin, specializing in researching slavery and enslaved ancestors.

Enslaved black people before the American Civil War often used only first names, sometimes bestowed by by the slave holder. After Emancipation, bureaucracies required last names, so newly freed blacks chose last names. Often they chose names common at the time, such as the ubiquitous Smith, sometimes the name of the former “master” or the plantation itself. 

According to afro.com, Washington being the “blackest name” is a matter of speculation, but it was very common after the Civil War. One possibility is that George Washington’s name was chosen because of his widely-known gesture of freeing his slaves in his will. A project based on the 2000 census counted 163,036 people with the surname Washington; 90% of those identified as Black.

By comparison, in raw numbers, Smith is the whitest last name, although only 70.9% of Smiths identify as white. But by proportion, there are several names over 90%: for example, 94.76% of people named Olson identify as white, as do 94.84% of those named Meyer, 95.15% of Schmidts, 95.35% of Schneiders, and 95.93% of those named Schwartz. Hmmm. Pattern?

Sometimes, names change spelling within families. For example, my maternal grandmother’s family name was Wine or Wyne, depending on how the midwife/doctor chose to spell it!  Sometimes immigrants to the U.S. with “foreign” names ended up with changed spelling for the same reason—i.e., the ignorance of a local school or tax official. And of course, sometimes a person (or branch) of a family chose to shorten or anglicize a name, turning Robertson into Roberts, or Makowski into Makosky.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (CB), there are at least 151,671 different last names in this country and at least 5,163 different first names in common use. The number of combinations is mind-boggling!

The ten most common last/family names now:
Johnson C Smith University
1936 Women’s Basketball Team
  • Smith
  • Johnson
  • Williams
  • Brown
  • Jones
  • Garcia
  • Miller
  • Davis
  • Rodriguez
  • Martinez

Over the last 100 years, the most common male name was John, closely followed by James. The most common female name was Mary, followed not-so-closely by Patricia (~ half as many). 

Surprise? Not so much. Since 1530, the most popular “full” names in English-speaking countries are John and Mary Smith! John Smith is so common that Thesaurus.com incudes the following synonyms for that name: average joe, average person, common man, everyman, joe blow, joe doakes, joe sixpack, john q. public, man in the street, mr. nobody, ordinary joe.

Here are the ten rarest last names in the US, as of the 2010 Census (the most recent analysis available). You can go to rarest.org for more detail about each of these names.

Brett Banasiewicz, a BMX racer
  • Atonal
  • Banasiewicz
  • Guillebeaux
  • Mosheyev
  • Panchak
  • Ragsdill
  • Stawarski
  • Duckstein
  • Bombardo
  • Tuffin

As of the 2020 census, more than 4 million people in the US had unique last names.

FYI, there are 238 in the U.S. actually named John Doe. (Only 18 are named Jane Doe.) By far the most  common use of these names are as place holder names when the actual name is either unknown or secret, especially in legal contexts.

Who would hang that name on a child? Probably the same sort of person who would name a child Ima Hogg (a real woman, daughter of James Hogg, governor of Texas from 1890 to 1894) or Charles Brown, or take a stage name of Candy Barr (as Juanita Dale Slusher did).  Ancestry.com even reports 4 birth records for Scarlett O’Hara.

My Family’s Names

A woman in my family named Evon has never met another person with her name—and there’s a reason for that: according to the Social Security Administration (SSA) database, there are only 1.05 Evons per 100K. Vivian, however, comes up 35.97 times per 100K.

I’ve known for decades that women in my family have rare (usually middle) names, including Wavalene, Utor, Valeeta, Genilee, Alta, Vinnie…  Most of those names haven’t passed from generation to generation. Not unusual. 

All my life I’ve believed that Vivian means “likes bright and vivid colors.” Writing this blog on names, I found that it is of Latin origin, meaning “lively”—close, but still… The name has stood the test of time since the 1800s. Variations include Vivien, Vivienne, Viviana. And in England Vivian is a man’s name. You can probably name several famous Vivians, including Vivian Leigh, but Campbell, Balakrishnan, Woodward, Fuchs, Galbraith, Dsena, Blake, Anderson, Van Damm, are among famous male Vivians.

So, Vivian is a gender non-specific name. My birth middle name, Jean, turns out to be a feminine version of John. Little did I know. And when I named my daughter Daryl, I didn’t realize the ambiguity until a neighbor asked my new baby’s name (Daryl Jean) and then followed up by asking how much he weighed. And now I’ve learned that Darryl is among the names most likely to be perceived as a black male.  

Bottom line: This blog started broad and funneled down to the personal. I hope something in it is interesting, enlightening, or in some way relevant!

LUCK: GOOD, BAD, AND QUESTIONABLE

Nazur, lucky pendants to ward off the evil eye. A Turkish shopkeeper told me, “They are a lightning rod. The nazur takes the curse away from you and puts it somewhere safe.”
(Nazur pendants outside Cappadocia, Turkey)
For more hand signs used to attract good luck or ward off bad luck, check out my post on Thumbs!

“If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.” How often have you heard that? When it’s better to have no luck at all, what’s a person to do?

Is it possible to change one’s luck?

Note: the following not-exhaustive lists were compiled from articles in Wikipedia, on history.com, at liveabout.commom.com

Warding Off Bad Luck

  • Carrying a 4-leaf clover reveals fairies hiding behind flowers, allowing one to prevent the mischief they could do. Some species of clover all have four leaves, but those have no power. The powerful 4-leaf clover is a mutant of the 3-leaf clover, occurring approximately 1 in 10,000.  To know you’ve found a true four-leaf clover, look for one leaflet that’s smaller than the others. If all four leaflets are the same size, you are probably looking at the wrong variety of clover.
  • Lucky rabbit foot: The original legend says that the left hind foot of a rabbit that is captured in a cemetery at night can ward off evil magic. These amulets definitely do not ward off bad luck for the rabbit!
  • Romans were very superstitious, and a lot of that superstition centered on reproductive organs.
    • Soldiers carved phallic totems for good luck and protection from Pompeii to Hadrian’s Wall.
    • According to the ancient writer Marcus Terentius Varro, Roman boys were even known to wear fascinus (winged penis) amulets around their necks to prevent harm from coming to them.
  • It was once thought that giving someone an evil eye (what might be called a stink eye these days) could cause all manner of bad, from mental illness to physical ailments.
    • People used evil eye talismans, or nazur (from Arabic نَظَر‎), to ward off the bad luck caused by these curses. Popular and beautiful evil eye talismans from Turkey use glass beads or discs with alternating blue and white circles. These are still widely in use in Turkey.
    • Some cultures use a hand with an eye in its center for protection.
    • Others use blue or green beads.

Attracting Good Luck

Lucky Animals 

  • The Chinese word for bat means “good luck.” Bats are seen as a sign of a long and healthy life. Some Chinese wear bat amulets to bring good fortune. Bats on greeting cards mean the sender is wising the recipient wellness and success.
  • Bears have been revered by both Native American and Siberian cultures. They are seen as good luck because a single bear carcass can feed a family/group for a long time. They were thought to have supernatural powers of good, based on being able to hibernate through the winter. Siberians believed that the bear was an incarnation of their god.
  • Goldfish are one of the eight sacred symbols of Buddha, representing fertility, abundance, and harmony. Ancient Greeks though goldfish brought good luck to marriage. Egyptians kept them in their homes “to add positivity to domestic situations.”
  • Greek, Celtic, Egyptian, and East Indian people all see a bull as a powerful force. It is said to be a sign of positive things from good health to wealth. The Greeks looked upon the bull as a master of love and fertility.
  • The deer is another symbol of Chinese good luck. The word for deer, “lu,” means “income.” Often the deer symbolizes luck, success, longevity and prosperity, and the hope for a long and healthy life.
  • In India, the elephant is seen as a bringer of fortune and wealth.
  • The frog is a good-luck symbol for many cultures that depend on rain for rich and bountiful crops. Others see frogs as a symbol of fertility, transformation and safe travel.
  • Ladybugs: In German-speaking countries, they are literally called lucky bugs, “Glueckskaefer.”  Some cultures say that if a ladybug lands on you and you don’t brush it off, your luck will improve.  The deeper red their color and the more spots they have, the luckier you’ll be!
  • Because lizards are mainly nocturnal, they have become a symbol for good vision and protection against the unseen things in life. 
  • Chinese lore says that pigs bring good luck to business dealings.
  • In Korea, the swallow is considered a sign of good luck thanks to the story of ​Heungbu and Nolbu. According to the story, a sparrow rewarded a kind deed with prosperity.
  • Egyptians looked at beetles, specifically the Egyptian scarab beetle, as lucky. These beetles wrap their eggs in mud and use the sun for incubation. Because of this ability to always find new life through the sun, Egyptians saw the scarab as a transmitter of luck.

Other Lucky Talismans

  • Horseshoes are one of the oldest of lucky talismans, and there are varied legends associated with their strength. Suffice it to say that hanging a horseshoe on or above a door is still popular. Make sure that the points face up, making a U so that the horseshoe can fill with luck.  Hanging the other way will allow all the luck to run out. Irish brides often carry a horseshoe instead of bouquet on their wedding day.
  • “Lucky bamboo” is actually a close relative called Dracaena. It’s hardy and long-lived, which might account for its reputation as lucky.  The more stalks a lucky bamboo plant has, the more luck it brings. A plant with three stalks is said to bring happiness, wealth, and longevity.
  • During World War II, fighter pilots carried a variety of lucky charms with them in the hopes of tipping the odds in their favor and coming back alive. Gambling items like cards and dice were popular.  Deccofelt Corp started marketing fuzzy dice to hang on the rearview mirrors of cars in 1959.
  • A “Fumsups” (“thumbs-up”)is a tiny cherub-faced doll giving the lucky thumbs-up with both hands. They  had metal bodies and wooden heads that allowed their owner to “touch wood” or “knock on wood” for good fortune. Fumsups were  most popular during World War I, when they were given to soldiers. Some versions had a four-leaf clover painted on the doll’s head for an extra dose of good fortune.
  • Hangman’s noose.  The ropes were so valuable that hangmen were even known to cut them into pieces for sale as good luck charms.  Sick people wrapped the ropes around their heads to cure headaches and fevers. This talisman was highly popular among gamblers and cardsharps. Other souvenirs of hangings were also considered lucky, but weren’t as reliably available.
  • caul is a piece of amniotic membrane that covers the face of newborn babies, albeit rarely. From ancient Rome till the 19th C, it was widely believed that having a piece of one would bring its owner good fortune, confer eloquence, good health and financial success. They were so prized that midwives were known to steal them.
  • Bezoars are hardened, pearl-like clumps of indigestible matter that sometimes form in the stomach lining of animals. Around 1000 A.D., the stones became known as good luck charms throughout Europe and Asia. Bezoar stones were often mounted in elaborate gold settings or worn as protective amulets, but they were also prized for their supposed curative powers: an antidote to poisons and a cure for many other ailments including epilepsy, dysentery and  the plague.

Doing Double Duty

Various evil eye amulets from Italy such as the cornicellocimaruta, and lunula (1895).
from Frederick Thomas Elworthy – The Evil Eye – page 203
  • Meaning “the Hand of God,” the Hamsa (from Hebrew חַמְסָה and Arabic خمسة) is a symbol many people in North Africa and Asia Minor have used to ward off the “evil eye” and dark spiritual forces. It is also thought to bring the wearer strength and blessings. 
  • Wearing a gem set in jewelry is used as a shield of protection to ward off troubles and bring happiness. Gems and minerals each are reputed to have specific beneficial properties, so consult a book of stones or search online for info about your favorite stones. (I’ve written more specifics about this before.)
  • Dreamcatchers are made with a web or net stretched over a loop and decorated with bright beads and feathers. They are said to catch bad dreams as they enter a household.  By capturing disturbing dreams, they make the owner happier, more balanced, and luckier. Dreamcatchers can be used as wall art, earrings, etc.
  • Because of its association with the Norse god Odin, the acorn has come to symbolize wisdom. Acorns also signify fertility, youth, and prosperity.  The Norse believed that acorns could bring divine protection and placed them in the windows of their homes to ward off lightning.

Portents of Things to Come

Bad

  • Seeing a lizard scurrying away is a sign for you to flee trouble as well, before it occurs.
  • Black cat crossing one’s path signals catastrophe to come.
  • Breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck.
  • Walking under a ladder disrupts the Christian Holy Trinity, leading to divine retribution.
  • Killing a ladybug hastens the killer’s death.

Good

Spazzacamino, Italian chimney sweeps
  • For the ancient Saxon people, spotting a rabbit was a sign of the spring to come. 
  • Seeing a rainbow, especially a double one, brings prosperity or peace, depending on the setting.
  • Seeing an albatross portends good luck for sailors.
  • According to legend, shaking a chimney sweep’s hand or passing one on the street is a harbinger of good fortune. The tradition is especially associated with weddings, so it’s particularly auspicious for couples to encounter chimney sweeps immediately after leaving the church. (Modern British chimney sweeps often supplement their income by hiring themselves out to wedding parties!)

We learn from Gay that the Lady-fly is used by the vulgar in E., in a similar manner for the purpose of divination.
“This lady-fly I take from the grass
Whose spotted back might scarlet red surpass?
Fly, lady-bird; north, south, or east or west
Fly where the man is found that I love best”.
from The Shepherd’s Week by John Gay, 1714
  • Ladybugs are particularly fortuitous!
    • If a man and a woman see a ladybug at the same time, they’ll fall in love. 
    • In Belgium, a ladybug crawling across a maiden’s hand meant that she would soon marry.  
    • A large number of ladybugs in the spring means there would be a good harvest.
    • If a newlywed couple sees a ladybug, they can foretell how many children they’ll have by counting the ladybug’s spots.
    • A ladybug inside your house signals a period of good fortune to come.
    • Ladybugs on toys or clothes for infants bring health and good fortune.
    • The Norse goddess Freya sent the ladybug to earth in a thunderbolt to bring good fortune and protection.
    • The Hindu Indra Sanskrit Indra’s shepherd

Maybe

  • Birds can symbolize many things to many people. Groups of nests, flight patterns, dropped feathers, spots on eggs, etc. mean all sorts of good or bad luck, depending on the setting. For more details, check out my previous blogs on Birds!
  • Find a penny, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck—but only if it’s heads up. Tails up, find a penny, let it lay (or give it away) or bad luck you’ll have all day.  Some people say that this is true; after all, any coin lying on the ground is luck.
All the lucky talismans you could need, together in Greece for your shopping convenience.

Bottom Line: Talismans to bring luck and/or ward off bad luck are so varied, most people could accumulate dozens. Do they work? I could not say. They may be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing confidence boosts and selective confirmations. But as a scientist, I urge you to give them a try. If you do, and they make no difference, you’ve lost nothing. On the other hand, if they can make a difference and you ignore them, you’ve missed a chance big time.

WINTER SOLSTICE IS COMING! (JUNE 21, 2022, 09:13 UTC.)

photo by astronaut Scott Kelly

No, really: for half the earth, the Winter Solstice will begin June 21, 09:13 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).  The winter solstice marks the beginning of the return of the sun as the days get progressively longer again—and that’s always worth celebrating!  Ceremonies and rituals include purification, ritual sacrifice, dancing, and sometimes gift-giving

Oceania

The Australian Aboriginal community is thought to have been the first to celebrate the winter solstice, starting as much as 65,000 years ago. About 11,000 years ago, humans in Wathaurong created the Wurdi Youang rock formation, which maps sun positions on the Equinoxes and the Summer and Winter Solstices.

Wurdi Youang stones near Ballarat in Victoria
Wurdi Youang stones near Ballarat in Victoria
2012 Dark Mofo Festival
2012 Dark Mofo Festival

For a chilly celebration, Australians join the nude solstice swim in Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. Participants strip down and enjoy (?) a swim in waters where temperatures are below zero-degrees. (A cold front in Canberra has caused exceptionally cold temperatures this year, making that nude dip extra refreshing!)

Aotearoa Stonehenge

Elsewhere in the region, people in Tasmania celebrate for weeks, from 6 to 23 June this year. In Hobart, the capital city, the Dark Mofo Festival includes music and theater performances, art exhibits, and more. 

Māori Matariki parade
Māori Matariki parade

In New Zealand’s Māori tradition, the Matariki celebration commemorates and signals the triumph of light over darkness.  Events often take place at Aotearoa Stonehenge, a modern adaptation of Britain’s Stonehenge. This year, New Zealanders will celebrate Matariki as an official public holiday for the first time, following Māori customs of remembering the dead and celebrating the living.

Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa
(photo by AfricanObserver)
Eswatini warriors dancing Incwala
Eswatini warriors dancing Incwala

The Eswatini of Swaziland mark the Winter Solstice with a six-day celebration of kingship called Incwala. Young men, at the direction of the king, cut branches of the lusekwane and imbondvo shrubs, which elders use to build a sanctuary hut for the king.

After days of dancing, feasting, and feats of prowess, the entire community spends a day in fasting and abstinence, including foregoing wearing jewelry, bathing, shaking hands, and sitting on chairs or mats. The elders and the king burn sacrificial objects to symbolize the ending of the old year. The king then remains in seclusion and abstinence for a month.

Umkhosi Wokweshwama in 2017
Umkhosi Wokweshwama in 2017

The Zulu celebration Umkhosi Wokweshwama (“First Fruits“) focuses more directly on the harvest. The king tastes the fruits brought from all over the country and then smashes a calabash to invite everyone to join him in feasting. Harvesting or eating before the king is a sign of disrespect. Young men of the king’s retinue sacrifice a black bull, killing it without any weapons.

British colonial authorities outlawed the Umkhosi Wokweshwama, but King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu revived the festival in 1990.

South America

Incan Empire Winter Solstice traditions are still celebrated throughout much of eastern South America. Inti Raymi (“Festival of the Sun God Inti“) festivals occur annually in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

Inti Raymi celebrations in Peru
Inti Raymi celebrations in Peru

One of the biggest Inti Raymi celebrations takes place in Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, in modern-day Peru. The festival begins with a reenactment of appeasing Inti in the center of Cusco.

Historically, the Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the fourth day, they went to a ceremonial plaza and waited for the sunrise. When it appeared, they crouched down before it, offering golden cups of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn). Animals—including llamas—were sacrificed during the ceremony, and the Incas used a mirror to focus the sun’s rays and kindle a fire.

After the recreation of the ancient sacrificial rites, the modern celebration continues into the city where dancers dressed in colorful traditional attire march through the narrow streets and plazas. Festivities last for days and concerts continue late into the winter night.

Inti Raymi celebrations in Ecuador
Inti Raymi celebrations in Ecuador

The Ingapirca complex is the largest set of Inca ruins in Ecuador. Here, ceremonies begin as the rising sun shines through the doorway to the Temple of the Sun. Each year nearly 10,000 visitors travel to Ingapirca to witness the coming of the new agricultural year and join the festival.

In Ecuador, ritual purification in springs and rivers is an important component of the Inti Raymi celebration. It is believed to revitalize spiritual energy and their relationship with Pachamama. Members of the indigenous community in Otavalo begin the festivities with a spiritual renewal at the nearby waterfalls at midnight. The celebrations continue with a grand march into the main plaza where members of the community and visitors sing and dance for several days.

Wilkakuti celebrations in Argentina
Wilkakuti celebrations in Argentina

In Bolivia, northern Chile, and southern Peru, the winter solstice (Willkakuti) marks the New Year for the Aymara People and is a time to celebrate and bless the land for bountiful harvests. More than thirty thousand people gather every year to welcome the sun at dawn. This June 2022 marks the 5,530th year of the Aymara culture. 

Sun Gate at Tiahuanaco
Sun Gate at Tiahuanaco

At Tiahuanaco, in Bolivia, ceremonies start the day before the Solstice, when pilgrims travel to Quimsa Chata and Aymara priests make offerings to Pachamama, the Earth Goddess. On the as the first rays of sunlight pass through the Sun Gate to the east of the Temple of Kalasaya, celebrants raise their hands to the dawning rays. 

Celebrants offer food and other sacrifices to Inti and Pachamama to bring fertility and prosperity during the start of the new agricultural period. Festivities continue throughout the night, with lots of dancing, eating, and drinking of a warm grape liquor known as signani to stay warm.

Antarctica

Even Antarctica gets its share of solstice celebration, thanks to the researchers staying there over the long, dangerously cold season. While the Northern Hemisphere is enjoying the most daylight hours, in the Southern Hemisphere they are celebrating Midwinter. Festivities include special meals, films, and sometimes even handmade gifts.

Bottom Line: Since ancient times, people all over the world have recognized the winter solstice as an important annual occurrence and have celebrated the subsequent “return” of the sun in a variety of ways. 

THUMBS: THE MULTIPURPOSE DIGIT

One can live a full, long life without thumbs, but it is/would be mighty inconvenient! Thumbs are hard working digits.  They are needed for power moves (lifting and moving weight), for fine motor control of all sorts, and for numerous activities in between. Ancient Romans thought the thumb held sway over the other fingers; in fact, the Latin word for thumb, pollex, may be a derivative of the word for power, pollet. Consider the following common activities:

The kalimba is played almost entirely with the thumbs.
  • Write with a pen or pencil
  • Put on jewelry
  • Paint
  • Put on socks
  • Open a door with a doorknob
  • Brush/comb hair
  • Button a shirt or blouse
  • Play basketball, baseball, most other ball games
  • Tie a bow/shoe lace
  • Tie off a balloon
  • Play most musical instruments
  • Tie a knot
Most important of all – making thumbprint cookies!
  • Drink from glass, cup, or mug
  • Seal a zip-lock bag
  • Pull up a zipper
  • Pick up something small from a flat surface
  • Snap or un-snap a closure
  • Manipulate chopsticks
  • Eat with a fork, spoon, or knife
  • Wield a toothbrush
  • Open jars/bottles
  • Use a needle and thread
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Clearly, thumbs are hard working digits. (You heard it here first!)

But wait! There’s more!

Thumbs for Identification

Finger and Thumb Prints of Al Capone
  • Everything that applies to fingerprints applies to thumbs. Your prints are set three months before birth.
  • They are virtually unique. No two are the identical, not for the two thumbs of the same person and not for identical twins.
  • They are durable over one’s lifetime, making them useful as long-term identifiers of criminals and dead bodies. 
    • Any injury that goes beneath the outer layers of the skin can affect the thumbprint.
    • Thumbprints can be temporarily scarred by cuts, abrasion, acid, or certain skin diseases, but thumbprints lost this way will grow back within a month.
  • With age, the skin on your thumbs is less elastic and the ridges thicker.
  • Voters mark ballots with a thumbprint in many countries where large portions of the population don’t read
  • A thumbprint can be used as a legal signature if the print is done in the presence of a Notary Public and is witnessed by two people who are not affected by the document, who also sign the document.
  • The Registration Act of 1908 in the Indian state of Maharashtra specified a print of the left thumb.
  • By custom and convention, the left thumb mark of a man and the right thumb print of a woman are used
  • Sometimes thumbs alone can be used to access print-controlled locks
    • i.e., sorting those who are allowed access from those who are not.


Thumbs for Communication 

Professor Albert Mehrabian has estimated that, when a speaker’s verbal and nonverbal communication don’t match, listeners only get a fraction of their information from words. The rest is comprised of paralanguage (tone, speed, “delivery”) and body language: posture, facial expressions, proximity, touch, and gestures.  So what are your thumbs saying? It depends on where you are, what you’re doing—and when!

Thumbs Up

Wikipedia has an extensive discussion of the possible origins of the gesture (pre-flight checks, archers testing bow strength, seal business transactions, etc.). Regardless of origin, the meanings are numerous. Here is a not-exhaustive list.

  • In the U.S., this is generally positive, indicating success, good wishes, agreement, etc.  
  • In the Middle East, it means “up your butt.” Many, perhaps most, Latin Americans consider it offensive, as do people in West Africa, Greece, Russia, Sardinia, southern Italy, Australia, the Philippines, and many Islamic nations. 
  • In Germany and parts of Japan, it simply means the number one. 
  • The hitchhiker’s thumb: thumb out, fingers curled, arm out meaning I want a lift. 
  • A similar gesture made toward a door means get out of here.
  • When scuba diving, thumbs up means ascend.
  • Two thumbs up means jump ball in basketball.
  • In baseball, an umpire’s thumb over the shoulder signals an out.
The A-OK
Scuba diver signaling that all equipment works during pre-dive checks

Touching the index finger to the thumb while remaining fingers remain upright.

  • It’s considered a positive gesture, meaning all okay here in the U.S.
  • The same gesture means all is well in scuba diving 
  • In Brazil, it’s like giving someone the finger
  • It’s vulgar in Greece and Turkey and implies that the person receiving the sign is gay
  • It’s the evil eye in some Middle Eastern countries
Thumbing One’s Nose
Joseph Stalin, 1940

Called “cocking a snook” in Britain, thumb your nose by touching your thumb to the tip of your nose, with fingers curled or open and wiggling. This is often accompanied by jeering, crossing eyes, or sticking out the tongue. It is a gesture of ridicule in most of the world.

Eric Ambler in 1938 wrote, “The Rome–Berlin axis…cocked the biggest snook yet at the League of Nations idea” in Cause for Alarm.

Experts (5 year old neighbors) agree that this gesture is most effective when accompanied by chanting, “na-na na-na na-na!”

The Cutis

Put the tip of your thumb in to your lips while the rest of the fingers are straight up (or sometimes curled). Then the the thumb is flicked out while vocalizing “Cutta!” (Screw you!). It’s an insult to the target and to the target’s entire family. The cutis is used mostly in India and Pakistan.

In American Sign Language, this gesture means “mom.”

Bite One’s Thumb

This gesture was famously used by Shakespeare as one of the insults used by Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. Italians used the gesture as an insult for centuries before Shakespeare came around. There is some evidence that it had spread to England by the time of Romeo and Juliet’s production, but it was uncommon enough that Shakespeare included an explanation for why it was an insult.

The Fig

Hand is curled into  a loose fist with the tip of the thumb sticking out between the index and middle fingers. 

  • In the U.S., Canada, and Australia, this gesture is part of game often played with babies.
  • In American Sign Language, this is the gesture used for the letter T. 
  • It is insulting in Turkey, Indonesia, Italy, India, and some other Asian countries. 
  • In Ancient Rome, the head of the family would make this sign to fend off evil spirits during the Lemuria Festival.

In the Roman Arena

Pollice Verso by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1872)

Myth: In Ancient Rome, a thumbs-down meant the gladiator should die. Wrong! This painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (above) is most likely responsible for the popularity of this myth. The title means “Turned Thumbs,” a reference to the gesture being made by the crowd.

The Médaillon de Cavillargues (c 200AD) shows a gladiator referee gesturing with a sideways thumb.

Fact: Gladiator referees used a variety of gestures and signs to communicate with crowds, and gladiators didn’t often fight to the death. (Training a gladiator was incredibly expensive, and all the trainers, investors, sponsors, coordinators, etc. would have been quite upset if all their hard work was left to bleed out on the Coliseum sand. Death from injury, sepsis, or heatstroke was more common.)

Anthony Corbeill, a Latin professor at UVA, has written a whole book on ancient body language: Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome. Hand gestures evolved and changed in meaning throughout the centuries and from place to place, but here are some common Coliseum gestures:

  • Pollices premere (thumb up) – raising weapons, attack
  • Pollices verso (turned thumb) – weapons down, submit, begin
    • Historians aren’t sure whether this meant turned to the side or turned down
  • Pollice compresso (pressed thumb) – sheathe weapons, bout over, pause
    • This might mean the thumb pressing the other fingers or being pressed by the other fingers
  • Waving handkerchiefs or shouting

Sign Language

Sign language interpreters from different countries during a project meeting with Spreadthesign
ASL “water”

Sign language: a system of communication using visual gestures and signs, typically used by/with deaf people. There are more than 300 different sign languages in use around the world. Almost all of them are highly dependent on thumbs! 

Increasingly, educators have adapted sign languages for use by very young children and non-verbal students. Many sign languages can be modified to suit the physical needs of the user, including creating two-handed signs with one hand, adjusting the size or speed of a movement, or changing which fingers are moved. Sometimes, this even includes not using the thumbs at all!


Bottom line: thumbs are incredibly important and deserve more attention and appreciation that they usually are granted!