Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

5 Superstitions With Oddly Rational Origins

Even More Superstitions With Rational Origins

Many banana-bearing boats used to sink, and the association gave rise to a longstanding superstition.
Many banana-bearing boats used to sink, and the association gave rise to a longstanding superstition.

3: Bananas on Board

"Yes, we have no bananas." If you plan to head aboard a fishing boat, these words had better ring true. While it may seem like there couldn't possibly be anything logical about bananas casting bad luck over a boat, this superstition actually makes a lot of sense if you explore its origins. When the Spanish began to colonize Central and South America, they carried a tremendous amount of bananas across the Atlantic to Europe. When ships sank, which many did, the bananas would float to the surface, giving them an association with shipwrecks [source: Mikkelson].

Of course, it's also possible that the bananas actually did cause shipwrecks, at least indirectly. As sailors raced across the Atlantic to carry their payload to ports in Europe, they may have rushed their travels or made risky decisions in an effort to get home before the bananas could spoil. This added speed could have increased the rate of accidents and led to the loss of ships, lives and property — all for a simple load of fruit.

In addition, crews learned that fermented bananas released methane, a toxic gas that could kill or sicken sailors. The discovery of poisonous snakes, spiders and other vermin in crates of bananas further dampened their reputation among seafarers, making them an unwelcome snack on boats to this day [source: Odyssey Marine Exploration].

2: Shoes on the Table

In many different cultures, it's bad luck to put your shoes on the table. Some regions specify that putting new shoes on the table will reduce later prosperity, while others assert that any shoes left on the table will bring bad luck, trouble at work and even difficulties with your relationship [source: Van Scoyoc]. One local superstition in Illinois claims that leaving your shoes on the table will lead to a quarrel by the end of the day — which it very well might if your roommate or spouse likes things tidy [source: Middleton].

While the origins of this superstition are tough to trace, some sources suggest that when a member of a mining company died, his family would bring his shoes inside and place them on the table as a sign of respect [source: Tanna]. This in itself seems a rational enough explanation for this superstition, but it might not even be needed. Even without this nugget of history, any rational person would agree that putting your shoes — complete with all the dirt and debris you've slogged through during your day — on the same table where you eat and work is just a plain bad idea.

1: Rule of Three

Legend has it that when three people share a match, say, to light a trio of cigarettes, the third person to use the match is doomed to die. At first glance, this superstition seems silly and wasteful — why not share a match to conserve resources and avoid waste?

The idea that three to a match means death dates back to the Crimean War, when snipers from both sides would lie in wait to kill unsuspecting soldiers [source: Webster]. Lighting a match for a cigarette would reveal your position, but putting the match out quickly made it tougher for snipers to take aim in the dark. Leaving the match lit long enough for a second person to use it meant plenty of time to aim, so that by the time the third person bent in to touch his cigarette to the match, the sniper was ready to fire. Sure, most people aren't on the lookout for snipers anymore, but this superstition's oddly rational origin story means it's stood the test of time anyway.

More to Explore