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You Don't Need a Snake to Be 'Snakebit'

FILE - School children try to touch a snake during an awareness program on Naag Panchami festival in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. The Hindu festival of Naag Panchami is a day dedicated to the worship of snakes. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
You Don't Need a Snake to Be 'Snakebit'
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Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

On this show, we explore American idioms and expressions. We try to help you understand common expressions and how to use them in everyday speech.

You know, at times in life, things just do not go our way. We all have days when nothing goes right. In fact, everything goes wrong. Mistakes, mishaps and misfortune seem to follow us around.

If you have a long period of bad luck, you could say you are snakebit.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary claims that this usage of “snakebit” dates back to 1957. It does not say much about the history of the word. But getting bit by any animal would not be a sign of good luck. So perhaps the root of the term is that simple.

If you are snakebit for a really long period of time, you may start to think that you are jinxed. The word "jinx" can be either a noun or a verb. As a noun, a jinx leads to bad luck and misfortune. If you jinx something – the verb form – you bring bad luck to something or someone.

A jinx is like a curse. You really believe that everything you do will turn out badly. Even if you don’t believe in curses, just thinking that something bad will happen to you might make it happen. Now, let’s hear how these terms are used by two friends at a basketball game.

A: This has been a great game! There is only five minutes left and the game is tied.

B: I wish our team would just score and pull ahead. Being tied is driving me crazy! It's a good thing that I wore my lucky hat.

A: What are talking about? There is no such thing as luck. We just need to play better than the other team.

B: Look, our team has been snakebit for weeks! We’ve lost our last five games. So they need all the help they can get.

A: Don’t worry. There's no way we are going to lose this game.

B: Don’t jinx us. Quick…Knock on wood to break the jinx!

A: There’s no such thing as a jinx and I will not hit a piece of wood or anything else. I’m not superstitious.

B: Well, I am! There. Maybe that will break the curse.

A: You look foolish.

B: Really? Well, our team just scored!

Some sports lovers and many players are superstitious. It is a common part of the sporting culture. And we have a special word for players who are having a string of bad luck. We say they have the “yips.”

Having the yips is a kind of nervous tension that affects the person’s performance. For example, the baseball pitcher had a bad case of the yips. He could not find his strike zone. So his coach replaced him in the game with another player.

FILE - A snake charmer points out a snakebite during a performance with a snake outside a temple in Allahabad, India, Aug. 19, 2013.
FILE - A snake charmer points out a snakebite during a performance with a snake outside a temple in Allahabad, India, Aug. 19, 2013.

Athletes and non-athletes alike can be snakebit. And some people just seem to be snakebit all the time. You could say, they are born under a bad sign. That means they were born during an unlucky time of the year.

Born under a bad sign

I Been down since I began to crawl

If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all

The "bad sign" in this expression relates to astrology. William Bell helped to write this song. He wanted to compose a blues song about astrology.

Hard luck and trouble is my only friend

I been on my own ever since I was ten

Born under a bad sign

I Been down since I began to crawl

If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all

If you were "born under a bad sign," it means the stars were in a formation that have worked against you since birth. (This is also where we get the expression it just wasn’t in the stars. But we’ll save star expressions for another program!)

Keep in mind, being snakebit is more than just one unlucky thing happening to you. So, getting dismissed from work can be an unlucky event. But if everything else in your life is going great, you would not say that you are snakebit.

In order to be truly snakebit, you must have a series of failures or problems.

And that’s Words and Their Stories. I’m Anna Matteo.

Do you have an expression in your language about getting bit by a snake? Let us know in the Comments Section.

I was snakebit again.

I got snakebit again.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Albert King sings “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The song at the end of the program is Anders Osborne singing "Snakebit." The editor was George Grow.


Words in This Story

misfortune n. bad luck : an unlucky condition or event

mishap n. a small mistake or amount of bad luck : an unlucky accident or mistake

curse n. a cause of trouble or bad luck

strike zone n. the area over home plate through which a pitched baseball must pass to be called a strike

blues n. a feeling of sadness or depression

superstition n. a belief or way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and faith in magic or luck : a belief that certain events or things will bring good or bad luck : superstitious adj. of, relating to, or influenced by superstition

score n. the number of points, goals, runs, etc., that each player or team has in a game or contest

astrology n. the study of how the positions of the stars and movements of the planets have a supposed influence on events and on the lives and behavior of people