The first day of the month. Do people in primary school in England still go up to friends, pinch them on the arm and then give them a punch on the arm, and not always a friendly one, while saying, “Pinch, punch, the first of the month, white rabbits and no return?” Such was the custom in 1960s Somerset, a custom that no-one thought unreasonable. The “no return” meant one was honour bound not to retaliate.
Where did we learn such nonsense? An Internet search offers one explanation that says that the “pinch, punch” bit was supposed to come from times when people believed in witches and thought a pinch of salt, followed by physical force, would repel them. Another explanation offered says that George Washington would meet with Native Americans on the first day of the month and offer them fruit punch flavoured with salt. to be honest, neither explanation sounds convincing and no-one seems certain about the saying’s origins. Perhaps it is an amalgam of sayings, each with a source that has long since been lost.
What seems odd, almost five decades on from those early school days, is that we uncritically accepted stuff that was patent nonsense. It is hard to imagine that children in 2014 would believe someone could reasonably walk up to them and pinch them and punch them and then remove any cause for complaint by saying “white rabbits and no return”.
Perhaps it is that children are far more educated about what is and what is not acceptable, perhaps it is because within seconds of someone saying something it might be verified or falsified by Google, perhaps it is because children now are smarter than we were in the 1960s.
The idea that kids today might be smarter came from a conversation some years ago with a pair of sisters, who were then both in their late 80s and who both graduated from Trinity College, Dublin in the early 1940s:
“Did you catch the train to Harcourt Street?”
“No, I don’t think we ever used that line. We used to get the train to Westland Row. I hated the train, it was smelly and dirty and you got soot on your clothes. Not that we were as bright as the young people now”.
“But you’re both graduates”.
“Yes, but that was in old subjects, you just learned dry stuff. The young people now have to think much more”.
“The young people have to think much more” – and they don’t believe rubbish like “pinch, punch, first of the month”.