The Everyday Lore Project

11 March 2020 – Magpies

11 March 2020 – Magpies

Today was a fudge. It was going to be all about mad March hares, but due to some antisocial behaviour on the train, I was too late for a stake out. So I had to go to Plan B. Which I didn’t have. Until I saw a magpie. Good morning Mr Magpie, how’s the wife? said I, while covertly saluting so the rest on the bus couldn’t see. Then magpie number two was revealed as the bus passed the hedge. Good morning, Mistress Magpie, said I. One for sorrow, two for joy. Two is good. Further down the road and three and four were hopping around a field. Good morning, Master Magpie, good morning Miss Magpie. Another salute, three for a girl, four for a boy. Then five for silver, six for gold also in a field (by this time it’s just a salute as I can’t think of any more titles to say good morning to). Then seven for a secret never to be told. And eight. 

Now, I know the rhyme actually goes up to 13 magpies, but I only know it off by heart up to seven. So I’m on the bus, looking out for magpies, trying to glimpse a hare, but by the time I get off, the magpies have remained at eight. And there are no hares in sight. And then I go off and do Other Life until here I am again. 

To find the divinatory powers of the eighth magpie, my first port of call is the book One for Sorrow… A Book of Old-Fashioned Lore by Chloe Rhodes. Given the title, I feel I may find some answers. And I do. First there is the rhyme that I know. Then there’s an Irish version:

One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral 
Four for a birth
Five for heaven
Six of hell
Seven’s the Devil’s own self. 

Then the extension which is credited to Manchester:

Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten for a surprise you should be careful not to miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself

There’s also an addition to the saluting and salutations: spitting over your shoulder three times, so probably a good thing I didn’t do that on the bus.

Of course I should be satisfied, but I turn next to Brewers Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, and it also does not disappoint, for it tells me that the original name for a magpie was a maggot pie. But then it tells me two further alternative rhymes:


Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss
Ten for a marriage, never to be old. 

And then Lancashire comes up with this version:

One for anger, two for mirth
Three for a wedding, four for a birth
Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore
Nine for a burying, ten for a dance
Eleven for England, twelve for France

But with no explanation as to why such a pejorative sentiment. 

So now I have two wishes and a whore (name of my new Indy folk band). Obeying the law of three, I turn to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore and find an Eight for heaven. 

Then I turn to the internet and find Eight you live (Yorkshire), Eight for France, Eight for platinum (although it was nine for gin in this version which right at this moment sounds like a better prospect), Eight for a dance, and then when I found an eighth variation, Eight is hell, I stopped and went in search of that gin.

So, now I’m looking at my eight eighth magpie predictions: wish, whore, heaven, dance, life, hell, platinum, France. But let’s face it, it was never going to be much of a struggle to decide which one to go for.

Dance. So if anyone’s asking…


Header: Photograph: Dirk Baunack

Rhodes, C. (2001) One For Sorrow… A Book of Old-Fashioned Lore, London, Michael O’Mara Books Limited

Room, A. (revised by) (2000) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Millennium Edition, London, Cassell & Co

Simpson, J. and Roud, S. (2001) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Published by Liza Frank

Author of My Celebrity Boyfriend. Obsessed with hula hooping, sons of preachermen and fresh dates, sometimes all at the same time. Curator of Folklore Agony and The Everyday Lore Project.

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