Old Country Talk: “Were Your Ears ah Burning?”

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Photo: Community talk at the local fair, Sept. 1936. Photographer:  Mydans, Carl, Resettlement Administration.
Photo: Community talk at the local fair, Sept. 1936. Photographer: Mydans, Carl, Resettlement Administration.

“I bet yourn ears was ah burn’n yesterdee,” a common expression I have heard uttered time and time again from the very earliest day of my youth.

This along with other phrases such as “A rabbit just ran over my grave…” were such a normal part of everyday vocabulary that few of us ever gave these expressions any more than a passing thought.

Fast-forward to yesterday, I found myself talking to a young 20-something year old, when I asked him if his ears had been burning the previous evening.  The dumbfounded look on the guy’s face revealed that he had absolutely no clue what I was speaking about and that he had apparently never heard of this common expression.

In the mountains of Appalachia, we have been blessed with an extraordinarily vibrant and colorful language and many of the unique expressions we state on a daily basis can be traced back several millennia — such is the case with the ears burning expression.

This belief dates back to the times of the Roman Empire when the spiritual ones paid close attention seemingly every new feeling of the body, believing them to be signs from the gods.

In AD 77, Pliny wrote, “It is acknowledged that the absent feel the remarks about themselves by the ringing of their ears”

According to the ancient belief, a burning sensation in the left ear signifies someone somewhere is speaking evil about you, while a burning sensation in the right ear means that your praises are being extolled somewhere beyond your earshot.

These beliefs and superstitions were passed down for nearly two-thousand years, finding a strong safe haven in Olde English.

Appalachian communities are widely known to retain many of the historic forms of Olde English, leaving little question as to why this expression and many others are still commonly spoken, even to this day.

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