In my native language (Latvian) there is a word that denotes a superstition, but in a more positive way, somehow. It’s hard to explain, so let me give some examples:

If you swing on the swings a lot during Easter, you won’t get bitten by mosquitoes later in the summer.

If you eat eggs without salt on Easter, you will be a liar;

On Christmas eve you have to run around the house three times, barefooted. Then your teeth won’t hurt.

And so on and so forth.

You can’t really call them superstitions because nobody believes in them anyway. It’s more like fun sayings. Although swings are really popular on Easter here — mostly because people simply like swings. In this case the above quote can be semi-humorously used to justify swinging. :)

The majority of such superstitions have to do with celebrations, but there are quite a few that apply to generic situations, too, like “Broken dishes bring luck”.

The point is that when one starts believing in it and religiously practicing it, it turns into a superstition. But when it’s just a fun quote for the appropriate situation, what is it called then?

Is there a word or phrase like that in English, too?

  • 2
    What's the Latvian word? I'm sure that if English speakers like it we'll just rob it. We have a habit of doing that :-)
    – Keith
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 12:47
  • @Keith - Hm? "Teiciens". Though I doubt it pronounces well in English. Actually, I can't even figure out a spelling that would give the same pronunciation. Maybe "teitziens". Not sure.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:06
  • 9
    That doesn't matter. Not being able to pronounce a word has never stopped us before :)
    – Keith
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 14:13
  • 3
    to be honest I think the negative connotation is justified in these examples
    – jk.
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 20:18
  • In latvian it is "tautas ticējumi" can be somewhat understood as cultural knowledge. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 22:03

10 Answers 10


Making my comment into an answer

"Legend has it .."

However, the dictionary for legend says

An unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.

and though the phrase above works, I feel legend implies a story or a fable, rather than the sayings which the original question mention.

  • It's the closest thing yet. If anything better comes up, I'll change the accepted answer.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:07
  • 1
    I think Old wives' tale would suit it best, as this article can explain, as well as noting examples similar to yours
    – Thursagen
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:12
  • @Ham and Bacon - I read the article. It implies belief in the legend, whilst I'm looking for something that implies disbelief and more fun and tradition than anything else.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 20:26
  • @Vilx, I've added one more. Hope it helps.
    – Thursagen
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 22:02

How about:

Old-wives' tales

There is also:

Old Adage
Myth/popular myth
Old folks sayings

  • 9
    "Old wives' tales", I think...
    – MT_Head
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 8:29
  • 4
    Hmm.. maybe... but still kinda negative, no?
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 8:33
  • 3
    An "old wives' tale" is considered folksy and charming. Not negative at all, although potentially a bit dismissive of the belief. "Adage" or "saying" would also work, and they don't have a negative connotation either.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 11:28
  • @Kit, at first I was also for saying that it is not negative. However 1) the 'old-wives' is certainly easier to use as pejorative than 'legend' for example 2) wikipedia states this: 'The word (superstition) is often used pejoratively to refer to folk beliefs deemed irrational. This leads to some superstitions being called "old wives' tales".'
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 14:22
  • 1
    Folklore is a pretty good choice.
    – JasonFruit
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 18:35

I think the word that fits more is belief:

"There is a belief that if you eat eggs without salt on Easter, you will be a liar."

Also popular belief can work.

Folklore is like an hypernym, it is "the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.", so it includes also traditional beliefs, yes, but it's not the beliefs themselves.

  • I think belief is a good one, but there's still something missing for the full meaning that is intended by the OP. But I don't know what. Think, for example, of when tourists throw a coin in a famous fountain. Is that a belief? Not really. I think most of these people don't really believe that the coin throwing will bring them luck, love or anything. They do that because it's traditional and fun. Now, what's the word for that? I guess that's also what the OP is looking for.
    – b.roth
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:27
  • I'd say that it's a tradition that comes from the belief that throwing a coin will bring luck or good things, no?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:28
  • Yes, I guess that would be a tradition that comes from a belief or a legend. We're looking for a word to describe that.
    – b.roth
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:34
  • He didn't ask for a word that denotes the passage from belief to tradition, he asked for an alternate word for "superstition"...
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:35
  • Yeah, maybe I'm confused about what the question is. I was thinking of his examples, not of his question.
    – b.roth
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:38

Folklore is a very nice Anglo-Saxonism, coined from folk + lore

Tradition can also be used, for things "handed down" from generation to generation.

Ritual is the word usually saved for other people's traditions and folklore, that we don't understand or something that we strongly believe in (so I think it is not really appropriate for your usage).

Myth is not necessarily negative (still I would not call it much more positive than superstition).

Custom can be used for activity that is a part of folklore or tradition.


Folk belief seems to be quite neutral (it refers not only to superstitions, but to various true or false beliefs).

  • Come to think of it, I think I've heard/read "customary saying" somewhere. Could it be what I'm looking for?
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 8:43
  • @Vilx, custom has a wide meaning: "something that a person does, or that people do, that is traditional, usual or regular". So, yes, you can use it, the question remains if there is something even more specific and still neutral (or positive).
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 8:47
  • Folk belief is my favourite so far.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 17:47

Just to mix things up a bit, how about:

There’s a local tradition that says that. . . .


There's a folk saying: . . .

Not exactly synonyms, but I think they capture the idea.

  • 5
    +1 for "folk-saying", which I think is the best answer so far.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 11:46

A word that covers these and has more positive than negative connotations is folklore.

  • 1
    I was thinking more of something that denoted the saying itself. For example, I wanted to use it in a sentence: "There is a <???> that if you eat eggs without salt on Easter, you will be a liar". I don't think that "folklore" can be put in place of "<???>". Actually maybe the word "saying" is what I'm looking for?
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 8:59
  • @Vilx - you could say "There is a folkloric belief that if you eat eggs without salt..."
    – b.roth
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 9:46
  • @Bruno: I guess you didn't see it :D but, and I'm also speaking with @Vilx-, I proposed "belief" in my answer, actually. Folklore denotes something else... I explained it there as well.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 9:48
  • 1
    @Vilx: Folklore is an uncountable noun, so by itself it can't take the place of <???>. I'd call it "a piece of folklore" or "a bit of folklore". You could also use an expression like "Folklore tells us that ..." Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:14
  • 3
    @Vilx: Legend has it would work Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 10:26

But when it's just a fun quote for the appropriate situation... what is it called then?

I would call it a humorous excuse, since the person is not being serious, but the people being told are aware of the background of the excuse, so will accept it.


How about proverb? No negative connotation.

  • 1
    Well, I'm not sure. For one thing, proverbs have a pretty fixed wording, and they're also mostly true, while I'm referring to untrue statements.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 20:46
  • While proverbs do have fairly fixed wording, they mutate a lot over time, sometimes going so far as to reverse the meaning. Not many people remember that the full version of "Touch wood" is "Touch wood, no good", for instance. They also aren't true nearly as often as you might think.
    – user1579
    Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 20:54

I thought of something along the lines of aphorism.

  • at least, for the 'broken dishes bring good luck' example. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 4:12
  • 1
    Aphorisms too imply truth.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 8:41

A make-believe thing that is not real.

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