Since You Asked

When two people break a wishing bone, which one will get the wish? The person with the large piece or the small one? Some people really get into arguments over this. And how did this become a tradition anyway?

— V. Nelson

A big family meal brings enough tension that no one needs a fight over the wishbone to top it off. However, even the Internet can't turn up a definitive scientific study on which wishes come true.

The 100,000 or so wishing and tradition experts that Google can turn up come down strongly on the side of the larger piece getting the wish. The Random House Dictionary, however, says the shorter piece is granted the wish in some traditions.

The history of this superstition isn't recorded with great academic rigor online, either. Amateur genealogy, holiday and astrology sites, Wikipedia and a handful of lazy newspaper columnists phoning it in around Thanksgiving all seem to echo the same basics, though.

Ancient Etruscans living on the Italian pennisula around 2,400 years ago considered fowl to be fortune tellers because of the way hens cackled to announce the arrival of an egg and roosters foretold the coming of the sun each day. Simply holding the Y-shaped bone granted one a wish back in those days apparently, but the bones were scarce and tussles, in which the delicate bones broke, often erupted. Then the person with the biggest piece got the wish.

The Romans spread the bone-snapping, wish-making tradition. Bone-reading continued throughout Medieval Europe, with goose being the favored oracle. Early American settlers, particularly the British, brought the wishbone tradition with them to these shores.

While many families reserve the wishbone for children, some ordain that the youngest and the oldest member of the party are the participants. Some say the wish must be kept secret, while others wish out loud as they snap the wishbone. Numerous references describe the participants as grasping the end of the bone by wrapping their pinkies around it.

The wishbone or wishing bone is sometimes known as a merrythought, especially in Britain. Among students of bird anatomy, the wishbone is known as the furculum and defined as the forked bone anterior to the breastbone of most birds, formed by the fusion of the clavicles.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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