Sunday, 2 February 2014

Aye Aye Captain



I don't even give it a second thought these days.  Any time I see a lone magpie, I hold my hand up to my cocked head in salute and say, “Aye Aye Captain!”  I've no idea where or when I first heard this but it seems as natural as saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, just one of those things you do. Maybe it's not so dissimilar in origin either, rooted in ancient custom and linked to superstitious beliefs.  I don't know quite how greeting a black and white bird like a naval officer is supposed to reduce the chances of shit happening, but still I do it and I'm not alone.  Apparently there are many variations of this saying, from that simple salutation to the more long-winded, “Hello Mr Magpie, how are your wife and children?”   A quick survey of friends also threw a “Good day Sergeant” into the mix.

The subject of this, and the magpie rhyme ”one for sorrow, two for joy” etc. came up on Radio 2 Drivetime's 'Homework Sucks!' feature some months back.  I usually catch the end of it every Tuesday evening when I do a short trip in the car and I like the curious snippets of info you can pick up – unfortunately, though, I always seem to remember more about the questions than the answers.  Funny what sticks though - there was one about the weight of a raindrop falling on a small bird, it was something like equivalent to ten tons dropping on a human (I could be making that up) but of course I can't recall exactly nor the real science behind why the bird doesn't get flattened like something out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  Must try harder.  However, I did remember some about the magpie thing. An early version of the rhyme was “one for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a death and four for a birth” and it was used as a form of fortune telling, the sighting of however many magpies being thought of as some kind of prediction. Delve a little bit deeper and it's believed that seeing just one magpie is evidence that its mate (they mate for life apparently) may either have died, or 'be up to no good' somewhere else and is therefore symbolic of sorrow or bad luck.  As a way of warding off the misfortune that the lonesome Magpie No-mates could bring on us, the act of greeting him with a respectful salutation became a superstitious tradition.

I don't see many magpies in our garden, but my mother-in-law gets one quite regularly at her bird table. She doesn't bother with all that Aye Aye Captain wife and children twaddle, though; instead she keeps to the rather more prosaic exclamation of “Get off you greedy bugger!” preferring to see the sparrows and bluetits get the scraps. But I don't think the Captain can hear her through the window and presumably thinks the shooing action of her hand is a fanciful salute.

13 comments:

  1. Bless, I love Magpies. I always blow them a kiss, one for each Magpie. They are one of the most intelligent birds we have... so ironically they were probably always a bit sceptical about us and our superstitious habits and greetings ;o)

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    1. Oh yes, I love the intelligence of crows in general - fantastic, intelligent birds. Love the thought of you blowing kisses to them!

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    2. D'oh - as if to prove my own lack of intelligence I write it twice in the same sentence....!

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  2. It's amazing how the magpie population has grown in the past decades. I don't recall seeing all that many thirty or forty years ago but, these days, they are everywhere. About thirty years back a friend of mine told me about the tradition of greeting magpies, which I'd not heard of before; since then, I have rarely neglected to greet one if I see one (even if under my breath when with others). The thing is, I rail against superstition but seem to be stuck with this one. No salute, mind you, just a simple 'Morning, Mr. Magpie' or 'Hello...' seems to suffice.

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    1. Funnily enough I've seen fewer since living in a more rural area than I did with more urban surroundings (the same can be said of foxes as I think The Swede mentioned previously too!) Never mind the superstition, it's just nice to greet them anyway - I quite like the idea of upholding an ancient tradition! (Plus I tend to talk to all birds on a daily basis anyway - "Hello Mrs Blackbird, how'r'ya doin!" etc. - so it would be discriminatory of me *not* to include the magpie!)

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    2. To paraphrase John Cooper Clarke, I never cease to be amazed at how much I don't know. How did I get to 53¾ without hearing about this tradition? I have some catching up to do in the salutation department.

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    3. Well I don't know where you've been all this time...but hopefully it hasn't done you any harm in 53 years! And never too late to start!

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  3. This is a new one to me.

    I don't think we have any magpies around here...just big black crows that are sometimes referred to as magpies.

    But, if I ever see one...

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    1. I guess it's very Olde Englishe. I didn't know if you had the same magpies there... very distinctive with their black and white (and blue) plumage. I reckon if you ever see one you should keep it colloquial, perhaps "Y'all have a good day" would be just fine :-)

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    2. It'd have to be "Alright now"...variously pronounced as "A'ight now...awight now...'ight now."

      It's a good bye/hello all purpose colloquialism.

      It occurred to me yesterday when me and a buddy were leaving a restaurant through the kitchen...must have been 15 Alright Nows on the way out.

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    3. I like that. I can just hear it now, lovely and drawly and gentle and lulling. You'll have the magpies flocking round you!

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  4. As Notts County fans my son and I have spent the last however many years saluting lone magpies. One recent match-day morning, among the post delivered to his work, he opened a jiffy bag full of dead magpies earmarked for the taxidermist. Suffice it to say The Pies lost that day.

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    1. Ah well, then you'd be a fan, of course! Eww, a jiffy bag full of dead magpies doesn't sound too great though! I hope they were still reasonably fresh....

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