Words & Stuff

HHH: House Rules

(9 April 2000)

The word "China" derives from the name of an early dynasty, the Ch'in dynasty. ("Han" is a name for the Chinese race.) Chinese culture has been around for a long time. But it wasn't until about 1962 (according to MW10) that the term "fortune cookie" was used in English -- and American perceptions of Chinese culture haven't been the same since.

I'm not sure where the custom of fortune cookies comes from; I suspect that it's an American invention. (I've been told that egg foo yung and chop suey are also American inventions, but the former is apparently a Cantonese specialty and the latter term (though I don't know anything about the dish's origin) comes from the Chinese jaahp-seui, meaning (approximately) bits of this and that.)

Often, the cookies don't contain fortunes/predictions, exactly; more like statements about your supposed personal attributes, or aphorisms (sometimes intended to be amusing, in which case they often start with "Confucius say"). Sometimes they also contain a set of lucky numbers and/or Chinese writing that I can only assume is a Chinese version of the fortune (unless it says "Those stupid Westerners will believe anything, won't they?"). Some have jokes on them (I've heard of fortunes that say "Help! I'm trapped in a fortune cookie factory!" but I've never been quite sure whether that was a real fortune or from a joke of some sort about fortune cookies). And then there are the just-plain-odd ones; chaos golubitsky notes that she once received a fortune that said "You will be invited to a karaoke party." The concept of the fortune cookie is spreading to other ethnicities; there are, for instance, "fortune tacos," which seem to be circles of cinnamony fortune-cookie material folded in half, with a fortune inside.

If you don't like standard fortunes, you can get bags of special-purpose fortune cookies of various kinds; you can even get your own specified fortunes printed. I think Mickey Blue Eyes was the most recent movie to feature a scene involving a marriage proposal strategically placed inside a fortune cookie.

The part you don't see in movies, though, is what most of the people I know do when reading fortunes: they add tag lines. For some reason, many people refer to reading fortunes aloud followed by a tag line as "house rules." There are a variety of such tag lines; the most common are "in bed" or "between the sheets," as in "You will conquer obstacles to achieve success -- in bed!" (Somehow I've always found "in bed" to work better with fortune-cookie phrasing than "between the sheets," but I know people who swear by the latter.) Here are my favorite "...in bed!" fortunes, collected in various places over the last several years. You'll have to supply your own "in bed!" after the first few.

You will be unusually successful in business -- in bed!
You will conquer obstacles to achieve success -- in bed!
A man's best possession is a sympathetic wife -- in bed!
Watch your relations with other people carefully, be reserved.
Your mind is creative, original, and alert.
If you continually give you will continually have.
Be moderate where pleasure is concerned, avoid fatigue.
You have a potential urge and the ability for accomplishment.
A financial investment will yield returns beyond your hopes.
You will be recognized and honored as a community leader.
You will be showered with good luck.
You will be fortunate in everything you put your hands to.
You have an unusual equipment for success, use it properly.
You never hesitate to tackle the most difficult problems.
Keep your feet on the ground even though friends flatter you.

And finally, my all-time favorite:

Constant grinding can turn an iron rod into a needle -- in bed!

As I noted above, there are other tag lines in common use. Some of my friends are fond of appending "...with this new fully armed and operational battle station" to their fortunes; I find that occasionally entertaining, but not nearly as likely to produce funny results as the old standby "in bed." (I think the success of "in bed" has a lot to do with the number of suggestive-sounding phrases there are; pretty much anything can sound like a euphemism for sexual matters if you think about it right. As Tom Lehrer put it, "When correctly viewed, everything is lewd!") I've also heard "...in my pants" and "...after the lobotomy" suggested as tag lines.

A friend of a friend suggested a different game to play with fortunate cookies: Ask a question, out loud. Then open the cookie and read the fortune. If the fortune (without the tag line) more or less makes sense as an answer to the question, the cookies get a point; if not, the humans get a point. (I suppose for added fun you could try the fortune as an answer both with and without tag lines.) Repeat until everyone at the table has had a question and an answer, then add up the scores. I'm not sure what kinds of questions are allowed; presumably you can't ask "What's my favorite color?" or "What's two plus two?" Perhaps they should be fortune-telling sorts of questions -- "Should I ask her out?" "What will happen if I take this job?"


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>