If looks could kill, eh?

Well, what? What if? Would they run you down like a runaway Volkswagen Jetta striking a tourist? Or would they reach out and strangle you? Would they torture you to death, or would they just treat you as you deserve?

A look is a gesture, after all. Imagine the Roman emperor looking from his high chair down on you in the arena, pronouncing ex cathedra with a single thumb your persistence or demise. Imagine a guard in a prison camp judging you in a glance and waving you one way or the other, to a quick death or a slow one. These gestures are seen and they cause actions. Now imagine a flat gaze from a person you wished to impress. Imagine cut-eye from someone near to you at a comment you made. You see and you could just die, you know?

But those are semiotic: message received, response effected. If a person gives you a hard stare, the hairy eyeball, a mad-dog, and you see it, they may as well have said a harsh word, or even have slapped your cheek in challenge. But what if they throw it at you behind your back, when you can’t see it?

The eyes may seem the beacon of the soul, but they do not shine; they only reflect and absorb. The gaze may seem to leap and dart, but there is no real jeté. They are not searchlights. They are buckets, not fire hoses. When you see what the eyes tell you, you see not what the eyeballs do but what the eyelids and eyebrows and other surrounding muscles do. And you see it with your eyes just because light lands on them and bounces in through your pupils.

But that’s all scientific. You tell that to someone who has had the jettatura, or seen it. A jettatore throws a glance – no, not a glance, an arch and evil gaze, shooting out of the eyes like jets. The kind that needs to be warded off, preferably with a gesture with an obscene referent: the horns will do – index and little finger pointing outwards, distracting the demons for a moment with thoughts of cuckoldry. (This is also the source of the devil-horn gesture popular among heavy metal fans.) What, they don’t protect? I defy you to say light does not bounce off them. I defy you to be as rational as that and yet by implication accept the possibility of a curse coming from someone’s gaze.

And that someone is a jettatore and the look they throw is a jettatura. It’s from Italian (but you still say the as in English), from the same source as jet and jeté: a Latin word meaning ‘throw’. You throw a bad look at someone, even behind their back, and they have bad luck. It’s a convenient way to explain mischance – and dislike. And perhaps to hope that a good hard look at someone will be enough to make them go away.

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