Pennies, Headlights and Bubonic Plague

When I was a child playing Ring Around the Rosie, we always chanted the final line as, “One Two Three, we all fall down!” It wasn’t many years later that I learned different versions of that final line: “Ashes, ashes” , or “A tissue!  A tissue!”  By that time, I’d also discovered the macabre origins of the game as a reference to bubonic plague, so I tend to think of the “one two three” of my own childhood game a sort of cultural evolution.

That was my introduction into the way common sayings transform as the generations pass. Another of these is found pennies.  I remember once finding a penny and hearing for the first time that my penny wasn’t lucky because I’d found it face down.  I looked at the companion who’d told me this and said, “Huh?”  She, younger than I, repeated that my penny wasn’t lucky because I’d found it lying face down.  I looked at her and chanted: “See a penny pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck; see a penny, leave it lie and you’ll have bad luck by and by.”  My friend’s expression was just as “Huh?” as mine had been; she’d never before heard that rhyme.  The lucky penny tale that she had grown up with said that, to be lucky, a penny must be found face up, and then put in her right shoe.  (Why a penny in one’s shoe should be particularly lucky I’ve never quite figured out; it always just sounds uncomfortable to me.)  However, she was pleased with my version of lucky pennies —  they’re all pennies from heaven, no matter how you find them – and asked me to repeat the rhyme so she wouldn’t forget it.

That made me think of the bridal rhyme: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” That was all I had learned, yet my mother’s version had included a final line saying, “…and a penny in your shoe.”  (Again, uncomfortable!)  Another friend was from Britain; her version of the bridal rhyme stated, “…and a sixpence in your shoe”.  (Ouch again.)  Well, I’d had the penny and she the sixpence, and for neither of us, we concluded, did the charm bring any luck to our disastrous marriages.

Other cultural transformations, though, are less benign than children’s rhymes. To me the most frightening metamorphosis of all is the alteration, still unknown to so many older people, in what is meant when the car driving behind them quickly flashes its headlights.  To contemporary drivers, that gesture indicates the demand, “ You are driving too slowly. Get out of my way.  Pull over.  Pull into another lane.”

To an older generation, however, the quick blink of headlights behind them has always meant, “I’m going to pass you; don’t speed up.”   Actually, we were specifically taught that information in my Driver’s Education classes, lo! those many years ago.  If the car following us blinked its headlights, we were to lift our foot from the accelerator to slow our own vehicle ever so slightly, allowing the over-eager car pass us.  Today, though, that misunderstood courtesy of marginally slowing down so that the other car can pass simply infuriates young drivers.  It’s resulted in many an incident of road rage.

It’s odd, sometimes, to look at these cultural mutations and transformations, but, more than that, it’s remarkable and sometimes even startling to consider what they indicate about the behavior of various generations. A child’s game is no longer a macabre reenactment of bubonic plague; a penny from heaven becomes unlucky just because of the way it landed; a courteous gesture becomes an incitement to rage by someone already discourteous.

Things change. And while usually that give me hope, it sometimes saddens me.

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