Saying 'Morning captain' to Magpies

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Saying  'Morning captain' to Magpies

Saying 'Morning captain' to Magpies

Around Britain, many people salute the first magpie they see during a day with a cheery "Morning Captain" and a jaunty salute. Not to do so is considered bad form and a cause of bad luck that day. In some areas, the full salutation is 'Good Morning, Captain  - how are your wife and kids?'

What is unusual about this tradition is that magpies are a species of crow - a type of bird traditionally associated with ill-omen and foreboding. Magpies specifically are regarded as thieves on the basis for their predilection for acquiring shiny objects to adorn their nests - hence the phrase "thieving magpie". It's perhaps notable that magpies are also commemorated in the popular nursery rhyme 'one for sorrow'. There are variations on this song - perhaps the most familiar to today's children is the anodyne in incarnation below:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy
Three for a girl,
And four for a boy
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven's a secret, never told

The numbers are associated (as any child who grew up with 70s television show 'Magpie' will attest) with the number of magpies seen. A solitary magpie is an omen of sorrow, two foretell joy and so on. It is thought that one magpie seen is a male (hence 'captain') and if seen on his own it is a sign of sorrow. If there are two, then 'Captain Magpie' has a wife, and thus the greeting to supposed wife and children.

A slightly more sinister version was recorded in  M. A. Denham's Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons, published in 1846, which had the rhyme this way:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy
Three for a wedding,
Four for death
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Not to be told,
Eight for heaven,
Nine for hell
And ten for the devil's own sell!

Perhaps this resonates more easily with the traditional fear and suspicion aroused by the crow family.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 25th November 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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