It’s more British than American. And it likely originated as a toast. The phrase “more power to your elbows” meant you lifted your comrades up to continued good fortune, with many more celebrations to come (so their elbows would therefore be bent in many more celebratory toasts). But now, “more power to your elbows” is most often just said in recognition of a thing well done, with hope for even more successes. A sort of quirky wish for “good luck.”
I am quite smitten with the phrase. But when it comes to traditions of good luck, I suspect most of us are more familiar with the “bending of our elbows” to pick up a stray pin or a found coin – especially a penny. Although pennies should only be picked up when they lie heads up (tails up can bring bad luck). And if the sighted coin is tails up, we are meant to simply turn it over – and then leave it heads up for the next person to find and enjoy the good luck themselves.
There is a belief that finding such random pennies is a sign that someone is thinking of us – perhaps an angel (like pennies from heaven).
And there is also an old custom among home builders to leave a copper or gold or silver coin nailed or hidden within the framework of new construction to bring good luck to the family who will live there.
The term “lucky penny” actually comes from the practice of returning a small sum – often just a penny – to someone who purchases something from us – as a gesture of goodwill, a bestowing of our wish for prosperity and good luck to them.
I am intrigued with all of these practices and traditions of good luck being wished for and bestowed upon others, rather than ourselves – whether it is with pennies or other coins or toasts or simply with words. We offer it outwardly – almost as a benediction, an invocation – for another to succeed or do well. I find it encouraging that we can express a sincere hope for another’s triumph, for their fulfillment of a goal – for winning the race, or baking the first-prize pie, for reciting the perfect poem, or having the girl say yes to the dance.
And I suspect we tell each other “good luck” when we really mean “be careful” or “be happy.” We say good luck when we say “goodbye, I will miss you in my life.” Sometimes wishing each other good luck can be easier than saying “I worry about you. I care what happens to you. You are important.”
I also remember a time when I was about 10 or 12 years old, and I sang in a church youth choir, with all of the girls lined up in one row, the boys in a row behind us. Often, the boys were asked to perform a solo part, with the girls singing a follow-up section (and vice versa). The rivalry between the boys and girls was fierce and mean and raged as it can do best at the age of 10 or 12. Until just before one performance, and the girl next to me turned to the row of boys behind us, and she whispered, not the usual taunt we all expected, but the words “good luck.” Suddenly, the competitiveness was gone, the pettiness and animosity dissipated, and we all simply grinned at each other. “Good luck to you, too,” they whispered back. I don’t recall how well we all sang that day. I suspect it was brilliant.
How brilliant would it be if all of life’s negotiations could be as simple and genuine as wishing each other “good luck” – with all the innocence and faith of children, especially in the context of competition and self-interest. Perhaps we could do it at least in heart and spirit if not in actuality. Perhaps those implications of: “I care about what happens to you,” and “we’re all in this together – singing the same song, even if different parts,” could erode away tensions and pretense, and ease into grinning wildly at each other. How brilliant would it be if we could sometimes just turn to each other and whisper: “Good luck. Sing well. And more power to your elbows.”