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ears


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The idea that your ear or cheek burning or itching is a sign that someone is talking about you is still generally known, if not actually believed. The belief is of considerable age, being included by Pliny (Natural History, (ad 77), XXVIII). In Britain, Chaucer is the first to mention it (Troilus and Criseyde, II. I), and it turns up regularly in the written record from then on, with little alteration. It is generally agreed that the right or left mean different things, ‘When the lefte cheek burnes, it is a sign somebody talkes well of you; but if the right cheek burnes it is a sure sign of ill’ (Melton, 1620: 45). ‘In the case of the right ear I have been advised to pinch it, and the person who is speaking spitefully of me will immediately bite his or her tongue’ (Hampshire, N&Q 7s:10 (1890), 7). Other reported remedies to get back at the talker are to wet the ear with your finger, tie a loop in a piece of string or leather lace, tear up a tuft of grass and throw it away, or tie a knot in the corner of up your apron (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 130–1; N&Q 12s:2 (1916), 310, 413).

Ringing in the ear is also widely held as significant, although it is not recorded much before the mid-18th century. It is usually believed to be of ill omen, presaging bad news, and is thus called the ‘dead-bell’ or ‘news-bell’: ‘What a night of horrors! … I've had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I've seen a magpie all alone!’ (Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), chapter 8). Alternatively, if you get a ringing in your ear, immediately ask someone to give you a number. Translate that number into a letter of the alphabet, which will be the first letter of the name of the person whom you will marry, or who is thinking about you. The first recorded instance of this is from Oxfordshire in 1865 (N&Q 3s:8 (1865), 494) and Opie and Tatem report it still current in the 1980s.

The size and shape of ears are thought worthy of notice, although references are too scattered and various to provide a consensus: ‘Small ears denote generosity, well-curled ones a long life’ (Lean, 1903: ii. 307). ‘Will someone tell me why ears that lie flat against the head are said to be a sign of good breeding?’ (N&Q 167 (1934), 391), and the curious idea that anyone with ears that stick out is nicknamed ‘Pontius Pilate’ (N&Q 167 (1934), 352).

Until recently it was generally agreed, even by many in the medical profession, that piercing one's ears improved the eyesight:When I was a house-surgeon (about 1881) at the Royal National Hospital Margate, I several times pierced the ears of children suffering chronic ophthalmic conditions as a remedial measure, doing it by the order of the visiting surgeons. (N&Q 11s: 3 (1911), 294)

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