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

WHY?

You and I are perfect, of course—but the people we live with? They drive us nuts all around the house, in ways too numerous to count! And some rooms are more irritating than others. Some say such minor annoyances are the signs of imploding domestic happiness. Others claim habits like these are simply what happens when people become comfortable with each other, possibly even a sign of healthy relationships. Consider the ways irritability might be bad for you. And think about ways these little things can add tension to writing scenes.

Kitchen

~Putting the peanut butter on top of the jelly or the jelly on top of the peanut butter
  • Leaving scraps in the sink, even the side that has the garbage disposal
  • Leaving empty or near-empty cups, mugs, and glasses all around the house instead of taking them to the kitchen
  • Leaving cuttings/crumbs on the counter
  • Using twice as many utensils as necessary
  • Not turning off the stove burners/oven
  • Starting a dish cooking, leaving the room, and letting the food burn
  • Never adding salt and pepper while cooking (or adding far too much)
  • Leaving herbs, spices, and other seasonings on the counter
  • Not wiping up spills
  • Not checking the vegetable drawer for partials before cutting a new pepper, onion, or cuke
  • Leaving partially eaten food out (pizza, sandwich, fruit)

Bathrooms

~Washing dishes in what is clearly the dolls’ bathtub
  • Soaking the bathmat
  • Leaving dirty clothes on the floor
  • Sprinkling the counters with grooming products
  • Not flushing
  • Not replacing a spent toilet paper roll
  • Putting new TP roll on so new sheets come from the back, when everyone knows the new sheets should come over the top. (Or vice versa!)
  • Leaving hair in the washbasin
  • Using your washcloth or towel
  • Running out the hot water
  • Leaving the cap off toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, whatever

Bedroom

~Kicking while dreaming of chasing squirrels
  • Restless sleeping or kicking
  • Snoring
  • Using a C-Pap machine
  • Taking too much closet and dresser space
  • Leaving clothes around
  • Hogging the covers
  • Insisting on a night light—or total darkness
  • Needing a noise masking machine
  • Eating in bed
  • Reading in bed
  • Allowing pet on the bed

Living Room/Family Room

~Taking up the whole sofa, even if they’re actually the smallest member of the household
  • Toys/games sprinkled about
  • Putting feet on furniture
  • Cluttering end tables, coffee tables, ottomans…
  • Not using coasters
  • Spilling food and drink on upholstery, carpets, curtains, etc.

Dining Room

~Eating your fingers when you’re just trying to eat your mush
  • Chewing with mouth open
  • Wolfing food or eating absurdly slowly
  • Talking with mouth full
  • Not using a napkin
  • Reaching for things that should be passed
  • Making a mess around the plate/bowl

All Around the House

~Forgetting to pay the gravity bill, leaving everyone to float upside-down
  • Squeezing tubes from the middle (toothpaste, anchovy paste, etc.)
  • Playing TV/radio/etc. too loudly
  • Controlling the TV remote/program
  • Flipping channels on TV or radio
  • Not picking up after her/himself
  • Singing, humming, whistling out of tune
  • Dominating the conversation
  • Interrupting
  • Not saying please or thank you
  • Leaving doors open/unlocked
  • Leaving lights and fans on when leaving a room
  • Not setting the alarm
  • Not watering houseplants 
  • Leaving bird feeders empty
  • Paying bills late
  • Leaving the newspaper a mess

Bottom line: These are just a very few examples of domestic minor annoyances. There are always more, especially when you’re looking for them. Is the irritating behavior really worth the irritation? Or could you make use of it?

WHAT, ME WORRY?

The occasional worry or weird thought, no problem. Not much distress, and it doesn’t usually interfere in one’s life. The problems occur when the weirdness progresses or the worry or thought becomes an obsession (often called intrusive thoughts), meaning you can’t seem to stop thinking these thoughts. These tend to fall into four categories, not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Professional

How do I convince the boss to give me more bones per sit?
  • You are giving a lecture/making a presentation and all the people are laughing, talking, and leaving.
  • If offered a promotion, would I be willing to move?
  • Which of my coworkers wants to have sex with me?
  • A coworker is trying to get me warned, fired, demoted, or transferred.
  • If I were in charge, I would . . .
  • I feel terrible but I won’t call in sick, because some people might think I’m lying.
  • How’s the best way to ask for a raise?
  • In staff meetings, I just want to stand up and scream.

Social

What if he’s only playing with me to steal my treats?
  • Thoughts of aggressive, violent, or perverse sexual acts.
  • Sometimes I go to sleep thinking thoughts of assault or murder, especially gory scenes.
  • What can I do to avoid loneliness?
  • Can others smell my breath, body odor, sweat, or feet?
  • Do people think I’m exotic or just weird?
  • Am I likable?
  • Can people love (romantically) two or more people at the same time?
  • How can I tell who I can trust?
  • The one who cares less has more power. With which of my friends do I care less?
  • Are they judging me as much as I’m judging them?
  • How many of these people aren’t wearing underwear?

Personal

Why do I keep looking up pictures of balls I will never chase?
  • I fear dying of asphyxiation when my inner scream never pauses to draw in breath.
  • What is the sound of my inner voice?
  • How do I know my brain stays in my skull when I sleep?
  • I keep thinking thoughts of religious shame, hell, and Satanism.
  • I worry about germs eating/destroying my body from the inside out.
  • What if my life were a book, available for anyone to read?
  • How do I know that my childhood memories really happened?
  • Every night I go to sleep planning my funeral.
  • What were my parents’ lives like before they married?
  • How would my life be different if I’d made just one decision differently?
  • What, if anything, would cause me to commit suicide?
  • How many ways to commit suicide can I think of?
  • If I had to lose one of my senses, which would I choose?
  • Why do I drink?
  • Should I change my wake/sleep pattern to be more typical?
  • How would the world be different if I’d never been born?
  • I think my brain is shrinking.
  • I imagine having sex with people I’m not really interested in.
  • Every time I take a business trip, I imagine awful things happening to my husband and children.

Miscellaneous

If I bury my ball and then forget it, is it still my ball?
  • If tomatoes are fruit, is ketchup jam?
  • How did humans decide how dinosaurs sounded? 
  • With climate change, insects are taking over the world.
  • Imagining unusual creatures doing unusual things.
  • Saying the same word over and over till it starts sounding weird.
  • How many life forms are there in outer space?
  • To what extent are people shaped by their names?
  • What are the side effects of various body piercings?

Bottom Line: What are your weird thoughts or worries? And what function do they serve?

What do dogs worry about?

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.

HOW CLEAN IS CLEAN ENOUGH?

Balneological custom depends on when you live, where you live, how long you live, what you do for a living, and the seasons!

When You Live(d)

The Kumbh Mela is a Hindu festival that includes ritual river bathing.

If you lived in ancient India, you likely engaged in elaborate practices for personal hygiene with three daily baths and washing. These are recorded in the grihya sutras, covering domestic rituals and are still in practice today in some communities.

If you lived in China during the Chou Dynasty, you likely bathed outside, weather permitting. However, if you lived in a Chinese city during the Song Dynasty, you were likely to wash your hands and face before eating and to visit a public bathhouse several times a week.

Infant Buddha bathing
From Gandhara (circa 2nd century)

If you were a Buddhist monk in ancient Vietnam or Laos, you would have bathed frequently, sometimes daily, for religious reasons. However, if you were a Benedictine monk at Westminster Abbey, you would have been required to bathe only four times a year: on Easter, at the end of June, at the end of September, and on Christmas, according to monastic rules (though the Abbey employed a bath attendant year-round).

A German knight bathing
From the Manesse Codex, circa 1300

If you lived in Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, you likely would have used a public bathhouse to spend quality time with your family, have a nice meal, meet your neighbors, and possibly even petition local officials. And if you lived during the 1340s-1350s and worried that open pores could allow illness to enter your body, you would likely have believed that dirt all over your skin would block disease. You would actually think bathing bad for your health because it opened pores, which led to sickness.

The Catholic Church has gone back and forth on bathing, sometimes linking physical and spiritual cleanliness and sometimes linking nudity and hellfire.

If you lived in Europe shortly after the Crusades, you are more likely to have engaged in a variation of the Turkish hammam and used soaps and perfumes brought back from Jerusalem.

“Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water!”
Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512

The ancient Irish bathed daily, sometimes multiple times a day. With the spread of Christianity in Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries, societal norms shifted to match the current Church customs in Rome: bathing only a few times a year.

It wasn’t until the time of the American Civil War, and the acceptance of germ theory of disease, that bathing became associated with health in Western medicine. 

In the early 1900’s, a typical Saturday night ritual involved American family members hauling loads of water into the kitchen, heating it, then filling a bath. Usually, the oldest/father of the family bathed first, followed by the mother, then the children in birth order, with the youngest last. Maybe this practice gave rise to “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”

Where You Live

A sweat bath: illumination from Peter of EboliDe Balneis Puteolanis (“The Baths of Pozzuoli“)

“Daily showering is a more cultural phenomenon than medical necessity,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, Mount Sinai Hospital. 

If you believe YaHoo! Life, “Americans have long had a reputation for a “squeaky clean” devotion to hygiene that fuels a $3.1 billion body soap industry, yet recent studies show that Americans are actually quite average when compared to how often people shower worldwide.”

Among people who shower every day, Mexicans and Australians led, followed by Americans and the French. Brits, Russians, Swedes and Germans averaged less, with Chinese the least frequent.

Takaragawa Onsen

If you live in an area where the geography lends itself to hot springs, geothermal vents, and readily available water and fuel for heating water, you are more likely to bathe frequently. Japan’s natural hot springs (onsen, more than 27,000 by some estimates) are used for nearly daily bathing, with some research indicating a link between frequent soaking and longevity. Dense forests provide fuel to heat Finnish saunas and Iroquois sweat lodges, both used for physical and mental health as well as bathing.

Himba woman wearing a paste of hematite, sap, and butter

If you live in an area where water is scarce, you are likely to employ “dry” methods of bathing. Smoke baths, in which a blanket or tent is positioned above a fire of Commiphora wood to trap smoke around the bather’s skin, are effective means of killing bacteria and any bugs on the body or clothing. Oil or fat smeared on and scraped off the skin removes dirt and bacteria as well as protecting the skin from the elements. Pastes made with antibacterial herbs, clay, bark, and scented ingredients serve two purposes: they protect skin from sun, wind, or cold when applied and remove dirt when wiped off after drying.

If you live in an area crowded with other people, you are more likely to bathe frequently and often communally. Turkish hammam, Swiss health spas, Roman thermae, even medieval European bathhouses took advantage of shared resources (such as heat from baking ovens used to heat water) and were visited by groups of friends or neighbors. On the whole, bathing is less frequent in more sparsely populated areas.

Societies with a tradition of communal bathing tend to view a visit to the bathhouse as necessary for social and mental health in addition to physical hygiene. Russian banyas and Turkish hammam are places for meeting neighbors. Swedish and Japanese onsen are used for mental health and relaxation as much as removing dirt from the skin. Taiwanese hot springs and Mexican temazcal serve medicinal roles and are often staffed by medical professionals. The Finnish House of Parliament has a sauna where elected representatives can discuss legislation and issues of the day.

How Long You Live

Children
“Eskimo children bathing in Bering Sea”
c1905 FH Nowell

Bathing recommendations from the Cleveland Clinic depend on your child’s age. Dr. Tamburro suggests these general guidelines:

  • Babies, toddlers and little kids should spend some quality time in the tub two to three times per week. Their delicate skin doesn’t need daily cleansing, but it’s OK to get out the bath toys more often if your child gets dirty or has a messy diaper situation.
    • Speaking of tub toys, make sure they’re non-toxic and don’t have the potential to harbor, mold, fungus, and bacteria.
  • Older kids ages 6-11 should hit the bath two or three times per week, at a minimum. More showers are in order when they get muddy, sweaty or stinky.
  • Tweens and teens should shower daily. (Their newly stinky pits will probably clue you in when it’s time to step up their hygiene game.) They should also wash their face twice a day.  In addition, many teenagers are physically active, and showers are a good idea after strenuous sports events or practices, including swimming, working out, and other physical activities.
Older People/Seniors
  • To avoid any skin conditions or infections, a senior should bathe at least once or twice a week. 
  • Some elderly people may suffer from dementia, and they may have more toilet mishaps. Obviously, this means more frequent baths and showers to avoid infections.
Adults in General 

It may sound counterproductive, but a shower every day could be bad for your skin. Some dermatologists only recommend a shower every other day, or two to three times a week.  If you shower too much it can lead to discomfort, and you may experience:

After the Bath
c1898 by WB Davidson
  • Itching
  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Flare-ups of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
  • Dry, brittle hair

Although fewer showers may improve skin health, you should still keep your personal hygiene in mind.  If you go too long between showers you may experience

  • Increased body odor
  • Acne
  • Flare-ups of skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis
  • Skin infections
  • Areas of dark or discolored skin
  • in extreme cases, dermatitis neglecta, thick patches of scaly skin

What You Do for a Living

Hydropathic applications according to Claridge’s Hydropathy book

People who work at desk jobs and spend most of their time indoors have the same bathing needs as adults in general. However, those who work with dangerous substances, animals, or in any jobs that people consider to be unhygienic may feel the need to bathe more often.

  • Janitor
  • Exterminator
  • Miner
  • Garbage collector
  • Butcher
  • People who work with corrosive materials, dangerous chemicals, disease agents, and radioactive materials need to shower at the end of each of their shifts.
  • Horticulturalists, arborists, amateur gardeners, and anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors around a variety of plants can reduce their risk of rashes and other skin injuries by showering as soon as they come indoors. on.
  • Athletes—anyone—whose job requires intense physical exertion.

Seasons and Weather

Home Bathing
by Kusakabe Kimbei

Guidance for better bathing during seasonal differences and changing weather are included in other categories and won’t be repeated here.

Health Line offers tips to bathe correctly and protect your skin.

  • Only take one shower a day (every other day, if possible). On days that you don’t shower, give yourself a sponge bath. Wash your face, armpits, and groin with a washcloth.
  • Don’t shower in hot water. Use warm water, instead.
  • Limit showers to 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Use a gentle soap or cleanser, and thoroughly rinse off soap before exiting the shower.
  • Don’t rub your skin with a towel. Blot skin dry to retain moisture.
  • Avoid cleansers and soaps with fragrances or deodorants. These products can irritate your skin.
  • Apply moisturizer to your skin after each shower or bath

Related Matters

Turkish hammam
  • Sweat doesn’t have an odor. It’s the interaction of sweat with bacteria on the skin that creates the stink.
  • Even with “good” smells, too much is never a good thing, particularly in close quarters. For example, the Richmond Symphony and Chorus ban perfume, aftershave, deodorant, etc.
  • According to the Cleveland Clinic, you probably don’t need to wash your hair every time you shower. Typically, shampooing two or three times a week will help keep your scalp healthy and hair happy.
  • Dutch study found that individuals who ended their showers with at least a 30-second blast of cold water were absent from work 29 percent less of the time than people who did not do so.
Washing before prayer (wudu) at Badshahi Mosque
Lahore, Pakistan

Bottom Line:  According to medicalnewstoday.com,  “Although showering offers physical, mental, and emotional benefits, the daily shower that many people in the U.S. are in the habit of taking is probably more than most people need. Showering dries out the skin and hair, uses natural resources, and creates an additional source of water pollution.”

For a more detailed exploration of how social norms around bathing vary throughout history and around the world, check out Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity by Virginia Smith.

WHAT? THERE ISN’T A WORD FOR THAT?

Also known as “Main Character Syndrome”
from EliteDaily

Last week I waxed enthusiastic about dictionaries, in all their forms and focus. Well, now I’ve made a truly unique addition to my collection, a Dictionary of  things there aren’t any words for yet—*But there ought to be.


As you can surmise from the cover, The Meaning of Liff is basically a humorous read. In 157 pages, British writers Adams and Lloyd have made a herculean effort to fill the word void with wondrous creations, some with historical notes and illustrations. Rather than inventing new words, the authors have paired each definition with the names of places in England and Scotland (Liff is a village in Scotland near Dundee).

Adams and Lloyd followed up with The Deeper Meaning of Liff. Thirty years later, Joe Morwood and John Lloyd decided to expand their geography with The Yorkshire Meaning of Liff.

(In case you don’t recognize the names, Douglas Adams is a best-selling novelist, the creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency; John Lloyd is an award-winning comedy television producer in England.)

Dalmilling (dal-MILL-ing) ptcpl. vb. Continually making small talk to someone who is trying to read a book.


In the examples I’ve excerpted below, bracketed comments [ ] are my additions.

  • Aalst (ay-AY-lst) n.
    • One who changes his name to be nearer the front.
    • [Something to consider when choosing a pen name?]
  • Bathel (BATH-ul) vb.
    • To pretend to have read the book under discussion when in fact you’ve only seen the tv series.
    • [One might assume that this applies to having only seen the movie as well.]
Glenwhilly (glen-WILL-i)  n. Scots. A small tartan pouch worn under a kilt during the thistle harvest.
[AKA under-armor.]
  • Craboon (kra-BOON) vb.
    • To shout boisterously from a cliff.
    • [And who hasn’t?] 
  • Duddo (DUD-oh) n.
    • The most deformed potato in any given collection of potatoes.
  • [Not to be confused with] Dubbo(DUB-oh) n.
    • The bruise or callous on the shoulder of someone who has been knighted unnecessarily often.
  • Ely (EE-le) n. T
    • he first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.
  • Falster (FAWL-ster) [FALL-ster in American] n.
    • A long-winded, dishonest and completely incredible excuse when the truth would have been completely acceptable.
Ipplepen (IP-pul-pen) n. A useless writing implement made by taping six ballpoint pens together which is supposed to make it easier to write one hundred lines.
  • Hadzor (HAD-zer) n.
    • A sharp instrument placed in the basin which makes it easier to cut yourself.
  • Juwain (ju-WAYNE) adj.
    • Only slightly relevant to the matter at hand.
    • [Such a frequently useful adjective!]
  • Kanturk (kan-TERK) n.
    • An extremely intricate knot originally used for belaying the topgallant foresheets of a gaff-rigged China clipper, now more commonly observed when trying to get an old kite out of the cupboard [closet in American] under the stairs.
Ossett (OS-et) n. A frilly spare-toilet-roll cosy
  • Lemvig (LEM-vig) n.
    • A person who can be relied upon to be doing worse than you.
    • [Need I point out how incredibly valuable such a friend/acquaintance/coworker is?]
  • Mogumber (mug-UM-ber) n.
    • One who goes around complaining that he was cleverer ten years ago.
  • Nubbock (NUB-uk) n.
    • The kind of person who must leave before a party can relax and enjoy itself.
  • Papcastle (PAP-kah-sul) [PAP-castle in American] n.
    • Something drawn or modeled by a small child which you are supposed to know what it is.
Sconser (SKON-ser) n. A person who looks around while talking to you to see if there’s anyone more interesting about.
  • Querrin (KWER-rin) n.
    • A person no one has ever heard of who unaccountably manages to make a living writing prefaces.
  • Randers (RAN-ders) pl.n.
    • People who, for their own obscure reasons, try to sleep with people who have slept with members of the royal family.  
  • Tanvats (TAN-vats) pl.n.
    • Disturbing things that previous owners of your house have left in the cellar.
  • Udine (YEW-dine) adj.
    • Not susceptible to charm.
Vidlin (VID-lin) n. The moistly frayed end of a piece of cotton thread.  “It is easier for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a violin to pass through the eye of a needle.”
  • Wartnaby (WAWT-nay-bee) n.
    • Something you only discover about somebody the first time they take their clothes off in front of you.
  • Yetman (YET-man) n.
    • A yes-man who is waiting to see whom it would be most advantageous to agree with
    • [X. Apparently their imaginations failed them.]

I highly recommend this dictionary, if for no other reason than it’s a fast, humorous read.  Can you think of a definition we need in English that might fit your hometown?

But what about you?

Do you have your own non-words worthy of such a dictionary? I have a handful I’m willing to share, and will follow the format above. Some are in my speaking vocabulary; more are in my mental vocabulary!

  • Alcologic (al-co-LOG-ic) n.
    • Thinking or ideas that seem perfectly reasonable and logical when drunk, almost always a bad—or worse than bad—idea.
Bednertia (bed-NER-sha) n. The reluctance to get out of bed, even when drowsily awake, thinking about getting out of bed. No sex is involved.
  • Hangry (hANE-gry) adj.
    • Irritability or a bad mood caused by low blood sugar.
  • Ignoragas (ig-NOR-a-gas) v.
    • The act of not apparently noticing a fart. This is a social nicety in some situations, aimed at avoiding embarrassment. In the home setting, it may reflect habituation.
  • Netbrain (NET-brain) n.
    • A condition in which something that is usually known or remembered drops through the net and is temporarily unavailable. I first heard this word from my Associate Director of Educational Affairs at the American Psychological Association and it’s been a staple in my vocabulary ever since. I have no idea how widely used it might be.
Obvispeak (OB-vi-speak) v. Saying the obvious in any situation.  Often it is announcing something that everyone present can see. Alternatively, voicing a conclusion when there is no alternative.
  • Pickaddict (pick-AD-dict) n.
    • A person addicted to nose-picking, often in the bathroom or car when the picker thinks no one will notice. Usually controlled in public.
  • Readarhea (read-ah-REE-ah) n.
    • A condition exhibited by someone who reads aloud from whatever s/he is reading, regardless of what the other person(s) might be doing, including reading, writing, or working.
  • Rubbleit (RUB-bul-it) v.
    • To reduce to rubble, either literally or figuratively.
  • Sleepnet (SLEEP-net) n.
    • A system or habit of thought a person uses to promote sleep. Does not usually involve counting sheep.

So, what is the use of non-words? 

Besides entertainment, consider working them into your speech and/or writing. The context is usually sufficient for understanding. Such words are fresh and eye/ear-catching. Many authors have created words that are now part of everyone’s vocabulary. Just think of chortle (Lewis Carroll), freelance (Thomas Brown), litterbug (Alice Rush McKeon), mondegreen (Sylvia Wright), nerd (Dr. Seuss), robot (Karel Capek), scaredy-cat (Dorothy Parker), and scientist (William Whewell).

If you’re interested, here are some other dictionaries that only sort of exist:

Bottom Line: Sometimes, dozens of dictionaries still aren’t enough. Consider creating words. Every word in current usage started as someone’s creation!

CONSIDER THE ONION

They say inspiration comes from everywhere. Interesting details to add to your writing also come from everywhere. To flavor your work, consider the onion.

(For a laugh, consider the satirical new website The Onion, but I’m actually talking about the plant in this instance.)

Onion Lore

There is a vast array of folklore surrounding onions. Onions are part of nearly every cuisine around the world, so nearly every culture has found uses for onions beyond cooking.

  • If you stick pins into a small onion and keep it on your windowsill, it dispels bad spirits from your home—or so says folklore. (Garlic has been used for the same purpose.)
  • Onions are also thought to ward off snakes and witches.
  • American colonists hung onions outside their doors to deflect evil spirits and keep them from coming inside.
  • If you throw onion peels on the floor, you’ll throw away your luck.
  • In many prehistoric societies, onions were the symbol of eternity, fit only for the gods. Additional symbolism includes protection, memories, jealousy, envy, divine healing, and mood swings.
  • Onions in dreams may represent the layers the dreamer needs to get through to find the source of a problem or issue. Alternatively, the dreamer may need to cleanse something in order to start afresh.
  • Put an onion under your pillow if you wish to dream the identity of your future lover.
  • In Egypt, an onion held in the right hand was a sign of fealty, used to swear allegiance to Cleopatra, and were a farewell offering carved into Tutankhamen’s tomb. They have been found in the pelvic region of mummies, in the thorax, and flattened against the ears. In 1160 BCE, King Ramses IV was entombed with onions in his eye sockets.
  • In other cultures, onions were associated with the devil. In Persia, it was said that when Satan was banished from paradise, onions sprang from the print of his right foot. 
  • Romans believed that eating onions increased the quantity and vitality of sperm. Some Middle Eastern cultures considered onions an aphrodisiac.
  • In England, onions predicted the weather: a thick skin meant a bad winder ahead, a thin skin, a mild one.
  • Schoolboys used to believe that rubbing their bottoms with onion juice would numb them to the sting of disciplinary caning.
  • If you want to make a wish on Friday morning, sprinkle salt and pepper on an onion skin and toss it into the fire while thinking the wish.  Other days or times? Who knows?
  • When undecided about something important, scratch each option on a different onion and store them in the dark. The first one to sprout reveals your best choice. This applies to choosing one’s lover/husband as well!
  • In English-speaking countries, some people believe that putting onions under the bed of a sick person aids recovery. 
  • Stringing onions up around the house, especially at the entrance will guard against illness, accidents, and curses.
  • Put a slice of onion under the doormat to keep away unwanted visitors.
  • If onions sprout in your kitchen, plant them. If they grow, you will come into unexpected money.
  • The cut side of an onion has been used to relieve the effects of insect stings, and to draw poison from the bites of venomous snakes and rabid dogs.
  • Snakes hate the smell of onions, so carry one when you walk in snake territory to ward them off.
  • Get rid of warts by rubbing the edge of an onion on the warts and then throw the onion over your right shoulder without looking back.
  • Onion juice provides extra sulfur which can support strong, thick hair, thus preventing hair loss and promoting hair growth. The sulfur from onions may help collagen production which, in turn, promotes healthy skin.

Onion Medicine

Folk medicine often contains a kernel of truth, and onion medicine is no different. Modern medical researchers study onions’ palliative properties for everything from high blood pressure to cholesterol levels. 

  • Because eating onions causes one to perspire, they’ve been used in folk medicine to cure colds. 
  • Onions are low in calories yet high in nutrients, including vitamin C, B vitamins, and potassium. 
  • Research shows that eating onions help reduce heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, elevated triglyceride levels, and inflammation. 
  • Red onions are rich in anthocyanins, which are powerful plant pigments that may protect against heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. 
  • Onion consumption is associated with improved bone mineral density. 
  • Onions are a rich source of prebiotics, which help boost digestive health, improve bacterial balance in your gut, and benefit your immune system. 
  • Onions have been shown to inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria like E. coli and S. aureus
  • Onion juice can cure colds, cough, high fever, and sore throat. (One might want to eat parsley to combat onion-breath!)

Onion Facts

Even without their miraculous fortune-telling powers or magical healing properties, onions are pretty nifty vegetables!

  • Most people cut onions before eating them, often tearfully. Chilling peeled, halved onions in the fridge or in a bowl of ice water for 30 minutes can lessen the onion tear production.
  • FYI: onion tears are chemically different from tears caused by pain or sadness. 
  • No one knows for sure where onions first appeared. Some believe they originated in Central Asia; other say onions were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan. But onions were surely eaten long before they were cultivated, and now they are grown in 135 countries.
  • When Europeans came to the New World, they brought onions with them, only to find that Native Americans were using wild onions for food, in syrups, as poultices,  as an incident in dyes, and as toys!
  • Worldwide, people consume and average of 11 pounds of onions per year, but onion  eating varies widely by geography. Turkey has the highest consumption, with 80.7 pounds per capita per year. In the US, the figure is 18.6 pounds per person per year. 
  • WARNING: all parts of onions (and related plants, like garlic) are toxic to dogs and cats! Raw or cooked, as little as 1/4 cup can make a 20-pound dog sick. 

If that’s not enough onion-y brain fodder, check out the National Onion Association, the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and the story of The Oldest Onion in Denmark.

I like learning when I read, and I try to include bits of lesser-known information in my stories. For example, gasoline cost ten cents a gallon during the Great Depression, and around the time of the Civil War, the census’s listed the occupation of prostitutes as seamstresses. 

Bottom line: Consider adding a little onion to your writing!

THE DOWNSIDE OF SELF-CONCEPT

Despite being a legendary harpist, ruler, and monarch, King David said, “But I am merely a worm, far less than human, and I am hated and rejected by people everywhere.” ~Psalm 22:6
Chu Wanning of Er Ha He Ta De Bai Mao Shi Zun is a visual illustration of the power of self-concept. When he appears in other’s flashbacks, Chu Wanning is an extremely handsome young man. When he is the narrator, Chu Wanning is an old, ugly, weak man.

Self-concept is how people perceive their behaviors, abilities, and unique characteristics.  For example, beliefs such as “I am a good friend” or “I am a kind person” are part of an overall (positive) self-concept. These perceptions of oneself are important because they affect motivations, attitudes, and behaviors.  Self-concept also impacts how people feel about who they think they are, including perceived competence and self-worth.

Low self-worth is having a generally negative overall opinion of oneself, judging (or evaluating) oneself critically, and placing a generally negative value on oneself as a person.


Self-esteem is a similar concept to self-worth but with a small (although important) difference: self-esteem is what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves, while self-worth is the more global recognition that we are valuable human beings worthy of love (Hibbert, 2013). People with low self-confidence tend to have low self-esteem and vice versa.

Abraham Lincoln’s “melancholia” is likely to have been influenced by a negative self-concept.
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”

Some of the most common characteristics of low self-esteem—of which there are many—also appear in those with low self-worth:

  • Depression/sadness
  • Anxieties
  • Low mood
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Extreme focus on clothing, makeup, grooming, etc., because of a belief that self worth comes from exterior appearance
  • Poor confidence
  • Feeling like a burden to other people
  • Criticize their appearance and personality regularly in their head and out loud
  • Feeling a lack of control in life
  • Negative social comparison
  • Negative self-talk
  • Worry and self-doubt
  • Not trying things out of fear of failure
  • Neglect of their own needs, particularly emotional ones
  • Guilt over self-care
    • (E.g., you feel guilty buying things because you feel you don’t deserve them.)
Esther Summerson, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, has been described as both an ideal of Victorian womanhood and a personification of low self-esteem.
(Illustration by Hablot Browne)

Some of these characteristics have an obvious effect on how a person interacts with others.

  • Avoiding social situations
  • Trouble accepting positive feedback
  • Afraid to talk in a conversation, and belief that no one listens when they do
  • Sensitive to any criticism and obsessing about it for weeks if not months
  • Apologize when other people bump into them
  • Problems asking for what they need
  • Fear of leaving the house to avoid anything out of their comfort zone
  • Questioning how a romantic partner could possibly love them
  • Always needing everyone’s agreement
  • Needing constant validation from others
  • Constantly comparing themselves to other people
  • Treating Feel other people are more important
  • Belief that other people don’t actually enjoy your company and are just being polite
Avatar Korra masks her low self-esteem by being impulsive and impatient. This leads to anger, depression, isolation, physical impairment, and nearly destroying the world.

Some of these characteristics may affect how a person interacts with others in less obvious ways.

  • Frequent anger and irritability
  • Difficulty making decisions because of worry about making the wrong one
  • Needing to be perfect 100% of the time
  • Over-achieving in general
  • Overly accepting or not accepting flaws in others
  • Tendency to criticize other people to make oneself feel better
  • Jealousy of other peoples accomplishments, instead of being happy for them
  • Shifting blame to others because they think it is unacceptable to make the slightest mistake

How Did This Happen? 

Even after becoming a mother, a senior witch, and Queen of Lancre, Magrat Garlick (left) remained in the shadows of the elder witches in her coven.
“She seemed to have spent her whole life trying to make herself small, trying to be polite, apologizing when people walked over her, trying to be good-mannered. And what had happened? People had treated her as if she was small and polite and good-mannered.” (Lords and Ladies by Sir Terry Pratchett)

Causes of low self-esteem can include:

  • Disapproval from authority figures or parents
  • Emotionally distant parents
  • Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
  • Contentious divorce between parents
  • Bullying with no parent protection
  • Academic difficulties
  • Guilt associated with religion
  • Social beauty standards
  • Unrealistic goal setting

Does It Have To Be This Way? 

If these sound all too familiar to you personally, don’t panic!  You can retrain your brain and start to replace all the negative things you told yourself with positive things.

Several ways in which one can improve self-esteem:

In one of the most dramatic depictions of negative self-concept, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life) so firmly believes that he is “worth more dead than alive” that he considers suicide.
  • Identify and challenge negative beliefs
  • Identify the positive about oneself
  • Build positive relationships—and avoid negative ones
  • Give yourself a break
  • Become more assertive and learn to say no
  • Improve physical health
  • Take on challenges

Low self esteem can lead to anger, depression and anxiety, and generally a miserable life. Therefore, it’s important it is to work on it—and to keep working on it. If you have never worked on your self esteem before, positive affirmations for confidence are a good place to start.

Bottom line: You can identify low self-worth (in yourself and/or others) and portray it in your characters without an explicit label.

TWO POWERFUL HUMAN MOTIVES

Of course, humans are driven by a lot more than two motivations. Various levels of deprivation (of all sorts of needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, sexual release, and much more) can motivate behavior in specific situations. Those are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I’m focusing on two powerful motives that tend to shape behavior across numerous situations and often whole lifetimes. 

I’m talking about the need for achievement and the fear of failure.

In the simplest terms (according to me) the difference is striving to be the best versus trying to be good enough.

Need for Achievement

Nadia Nadim, possibly the human embodiment of n-Ach

Need for achievement is the desire to obtain excellent results by setting high standards and striving to accomplish them. It is a consistent concern with doing things better.

According to the American Psychological Association,  the definition of need for achievement (n-Ach) is a strong desire to accomplish goals and attain a high standard of performance and personal fulfillment.  The need for achievement was proposed by Henry Alexander Murray and investigated extensively by David McClelland.

People with high need for achievement often undertake tasks in which there is a high probability of success and avoid tasks that are either too easy (because of lack of challenge) or too difficult (because of fear of failure). 

An example of the latter would be a 5-ft-tall basketball player with poor leaping ability, ball handling abilities, and passing skills. Such a person high in n-Ach is unlikely to try out for the team!

Recognizing Accomplishment

Even “minor” accomplishments deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

Studies have shown that feeling a sense of accomplishment is an important element in students developing positive wellbeing over time.

Research also shows that people with a strong sense of purpose, persistence, and accomplishment perform better at work.

Because one tennis ball is simply not enough

People high in need for achievement present as ambitious, driven, successful … and insecure. The need for achievement drives behavior in school, work settings, even recreational activities. In case it isn’t obvious, this trait can cause problems:

  • Driven to achieve the task—any and every task
  • Fails to differentiate “urgent” from merely “important”
  • Has difficulty delegating
  • Struggles with producer-to-supervisor transition when promoted
  • Obsesses about getting the job done at all costs
  • Craves feedback

No doubt about it, people high in n-Ach put themselves under a lot of pressure. At first glance, it might seem that such people should relax, take it easy, and be happy doing well enough. 

Fearing failure in a particular endeavor is experienced by most people,  including high n-Ach people, sometimes. Think a new situation or task, or one that’s just being learned. Think public performances. There are times when just not humiliating oneself is success.

Fear of Failure

This is why restaurants deliver.

But the fear of failure, more generally, is an irrational and persistent fear of failing

(FYI, irrational and extreme fear of failing or facing uncertainty is a phobia known as atychiphobia.) 

Sometimes fearing failure might be triggered in only one specific situation/task. Sometimes it’s more generalized. And sometimes it’s related to another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.

In any case, the fear of failure varies in level of severity from mild to extreme. Here are a few ways it’s commonly exhibited:

  • A sense of hopelessness about the future
  • Chronic (versus occasional or limited) worry
  • Worry about what other people will  think about you if you fail or don’t do well
  • Frequent procrastination
  • High distractibility, being pulled off task by irrelevant or unimportant things
  • Avoiding tasks or people associated with a project or general goal
  • Physical symptoms (fatigue, headaches, digestive troubles, joint or muscle pain) that prevent working toward a goal
  • Believing that you don’t have the skills or knowledge to achieve something
  • Feeling like you won’t be able to achieve your goals
  • Procrastinating to the point that it affects your performance or ability to finish on time
  • Telling people that you will probably fail so that expectations remain low
  • Underestimating your own abilities to avoid feeling let down
  • Worrying that imperfections or shortcomings will make other people think less of you
  • Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire
  • Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you
  • Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are
  • Failing makes you worry about disappointing people whose opinions you value (especially family/friends)
  • You tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations
  • Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed
  • You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation
  • You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time
  • You tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately, as a way of protecting your belief in your ability to have done it
Social Media can illuminate and exacerbate both the need for achievement and the fear of failure.
Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Bored Panda (just to name a few)

Bottom line: Two people may exhibit the same behavior, even turn in the same objective performance, but their reasons for doing so can vary dramatically.